Mainland authorities are considering tightening air-quality standards to include fine particulate matter in the pollution index for the first time, state media said.
The move - part of a review of guidelines on air, water, soil and noise pollution under the 12th five-year plan, for 2011-15 - would include particles smaller than 2.5 microns in standard reports on air quality, Xinhua reported yesterday.
Fine particulate, known as PM2.5, is one of the principal factors in visible smog and is known to cause lung damage. It may even enter the bloodstream and cause heart problems.
Chinese air pollution standards lag behind UN and World Health Organisation guidelines, but are stricter than those in parts of the United States. Fine particulate has been excluded from the pollution index - at times leaving city residents scratching their heads on smoggy days when the index records relatively 'clean' air.
In its report, Xinhua quoted Zhou Jian, vice-minister of environmental protection, as saying at a recent conference that authorities had been conducting a review of pollution regulations over the past four years, and were preparing to 'perfect' them and make guidelines more 'scientifically rational'.
Zhao Hualin, head of the ministry's pollution-control unit, said that the addition of PM2.5 measurements to the pollution index would be the first step, Xinhua reported.
The news was welcomed by one prominent campaigner as a move that would have a 'major motivational impact' on environmental efforts on the mainland.
'I strongly support this proposal,' said Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs. 'This is a move that really should have been made a long time ago, as China is one of the worst-affected countries in the world for PM2.5 pollution.'
Ma said China was unusual in not producing official statistics on fine particulates, which he said was standard procedure even in many developing nations.
'In a comparative study on air pollution that we conducted last year between mainland cities and 10 international cities, China was the only place that did not record PM2.5 levels,' Ma said.
'We first need to recognise the extent of the problem and work out how serious it is. That refers not just to the government - academics and researchers need to pay more attention to the problem.'
Visibility had been deteriorating rapidly in most big cities over the past two decades, he said, but including particulate in air pollution measurements could mark a turning point.
'This will have a major motivational impact for environmentalism in China,' Ma said. 'It will draw the public's attention, and that can only bring more pressure for change.
'Ordinary people are increasingly recognising that they may have wealth or a job, but they don't want to pay for that economic growth with their health or even their lives.'