China air pollution

China’s pollution spreads as dozens of cities raise alerts over worst smog of the year

As Beijing prepares to stand down from its highest air pollution warning, neighbouring areas predict escalated risk in coming days

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 December, 2015, 1:24am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 December, 2015, 11:56am

Air pollution remained dangerously high in Beijing on Tuesday while surrounding cities and provinces escalated their alert levels as northern China suffered through some of its worst smog of the year.

Concentrations of PM2.5 – particles that pose the greatest threat to human health – were 596 micrograms per cubic metre at central Beijing’s Temple of ­Heaven at 5pm. The level is 22 times higher than the World Health Organisation’s recommended average exposure over a 24-hour period.

PM2.5 levels were predicted to fall to 200 on Wednesday ahead of the arrival of a cold front tomorrow, the capital’s environmental monitoring centre said.

READ MORE - Heavy smog to cloak northern China until cold front moves in

Hebei province issued its first smog red alert at 11am and said the warning would remain in effect until Tuesday night. Eleven cities in the province responded by ordering half of all their vehicles off the roads.

Tianjin said it would follow suit with a red alert on Wednesday, and predicted the warning would remain until Thursday morning.

At least 40 cities across the north have elevated air pollution alerts in place, Xinhua reported.

The heavy smog was being caused by increased humidity and warmer temperatures, Xinhua quoted Li Yunting, an environmental expert at Beijing’s environmental monitoring centre, as saying.

Authorities faced fierce criticism late last month after they failed to issue the highest warning when the city was blanketed by pollution for five consecutive days. Many parents complained that their children should have been told to stay at home.

READ MORE - Beijing issues red alert as ‘worst smog of the year’ headed for northern China

Then in an unexpected move, the Beijing government escalated its “orange” alert to “red” on December 8 – the first time the most severe warning had been issued since the four-tier system was adopted in 2013.

The latest red alert came into effect on Friday, and was due to end on Tuesday.

The warnings pose a dilemma for many parents who must choose between staying at home with their children when classes are cancelled, or going to work, sometimes via a long commute on public transport because they are not permitted to drive.

Liu Yingling, a 62-year-old grandmother, said her family had to send her granddaughter, aged four, to kindergarten, where air purifiers had been installed, as she had been kept at home over the weekend because of the smog.

“Children should not stay indoors; they need to meet friends and communicate with teachers,” Liu said. “We have to share a car with neighbours so both families can drive to school, as we have no other options.”

Peng Yingdeng, a researcher at the National Engineering Research Centre for Urban Pollution Control, said the situation was seasonal.

“These [emergency measures] are the last thing the government wants. They are temporary, as public health must be taken into consideration,” Peng said. “We have no option; sometimes individuals need to make sacrifices.”

But some residents said they wanted the government to adopt even tougher measures to combat smog, despite the disruptions they entailed.

“If the air pollution becomes normal, so too do the measures to tackle the pollution,” said 37-year-old mother Vivian Lu. “We should not lower our demands for clean air and health because of the inconvenience caused.”