It may be a new year, but Beijing is starting 2014 still struggling with an old problem — off-the-charts air pollution. On Thursday, the city issued its first warning of the year for a wave of dangerous smog that exceeded the worst threshold in the warning system. Concentrations of PM2.5, a recently classified carcinogen, were 350 to 500 micrograms per cubic meter on Thursday morning. Later that afternoon, the air quality monitors at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing recorded a sickening 671. The World Health Organization (WHO) considers 25 or less micrograms per cubic meter ideal for human health. Above 300 is considered hazardous.
A Beijing resident told the Guardian that he was suffering from a persistent bad cold and was coughing up black phlegm. He said he was planning on leaving Beijing. Another woman interviewed had donned a face mask after checking the air pollution level before leaving home. She complained of nasal inflammation and said she often worried about the health affects of the smog.
In December, a first-of-its-kind clinic dedicated to treating victims of China’s smog opened its doors in Sichuan Provence, southwest China.
China garnered a lot of undesired publicity in 2013 for its growing air pollution crisis. A major source is its 2,300 (and growing) dirty coal plants. Traffic-clogged city streets are also believed to play a role. In January, Beijing experienced its worst air pollution on record — levels of particulate matter topped out at 723 micrograms per cubic meter. In October, air pollution nearly shut down the entire city of Harbin, and in December, extreme air pollution forced children and the elderly in Shanghai behind closed doors and windows for at least seven days.
The South China Morning Post reported that Shanghai experienced pollution for more than a third of last year. Just 52 days were considered “good” in terms of air quality according to the city’s environmental protection bureau.
On Wednesday, Shanghai released a new four-level alarm system for air quality problems. When the most severe red alarm is raised, kindergartens and primary and middle schools will automatically be closed, 50 percent of official vehicles will be taken off the streets, and large-scale outdoor activities will be canceled. Construction work will also be postponed. The red alarm will be issued on T.V. and via text when the air quality index is forecast to be over 450 for the next 24 hours.
Winter can be a particularly bad time for air pollution in China as more coal is burned to keep up with demand and weather patterns linger, keeping smog hanging over the city. Thursday’s reading was the highest seen in Beijing since the record-breaking levels seen last January. The smog is expected to continue through Friday.