Heavy Pollution Enshrouds Northern China Including Capital

Smog in Xi'an
Tourists walk on the city wall as heavy smog engulfs Xi'an on Dec. 18, 2013. Source: ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images

Heavy pollution enveloped northern and central China today, prompting warnings for people to stay indoors as smog levels in some areas exceeded World Health Organization-recommended levels by 30 times.

The concentration of PM2.5, fine air particulates that pose the greatest health risk, was 421 micrograms per cubic meter at 2 p.m. near Tiananmen Square in Beijing, compared with an average of 228 over the past 24 hours, the Beijing Municipal Environmental Monitoring Center said on its website. Levels of PM2.5 hit 795 in Xi’an and 740 in Zhengzhou. The WHO recommends 24-hour exposure to PM2.5 concentrations no higher than 25 micrograms per cubic meter.

With environmental concerns now a main cause of social unrest, China has pledged to cut coal consumption, shut steel plants and control the number of cars on the road to ease smog. The challenge will be targeting heavy-polluting industries that have created jobs and boosted economic growth.

“It’s not enough to control traffic and reduce coal power only in Beijing when two-thirds of power is derived from other places,” Li Shuo, a Beijing-based policy officer at Greenpeace said by phone today. “Pollution is an inter-regional crisis.”

Seven of the 10 Chinese cities with the worst air pollution in the third quarter were in Hebei province, which surrounds Beijing. A monitoring station at the U.S. Embassy showed PM2.5 levels at 313 as of 2 p.m., with air quality at “hazardous” levels in the Chinese capital.

‘Heavy’ Rating

Air pollution in most of the city was rated “heavy,” the second worst rating on the Beijing Municipal Environmental Monitoring Center’s six-point scale. At that level, the city recommends children, the elderly and people with heart and lung ailments stay indoors and people limit outdoor activities.

Pollution will ease starting at around 12 p.m. tomorrow, the center said.

The poor air quality in Beijing marked a reversal from a trend in which pollution had declined by about 25 percent from Nov. 16 to Dec. 15, according to a Dec. 21 article in the Beijing News newspaper.

Shanghai, 670 miles (1,080 kilometers) southeast of Beijing, reported record levels of smog earlier this month, causing flight cancellations and prompting the government to order vehicles off the road and warn children to remain indoors. The PM2.5 reading in Shanghai was 112 micrograms per cubic meter as of 2 p.m. today and air quality was ranked “lightly polluted.”

— With assistance by Feifei Shen

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE