A hundred chemical plants, construction sites and factories in Beijing have closed temporarily or cut back production as the authorities scramble for ways to curb the worst air pollution in years.
Air pollution figures improved yesterday and officials said they expected the thick smog in the capital would be dispelled by a cold snap in the next few days.
The level of health-threatening PM2.5 particles, smaller than 2.5 microns, was between 200 and 400 micrograms per cubic metre yesterday, the Beijing Municipal Environmental Monitoring Centre said, down from 500 on Sunday. The US embassy's pollution monitoring service said PM2.5 readings yesterday were higher than 300 micrograms per cubic metre. Its readings reached 886 on Saturday.
Beijing's municipal government said it was the worst smog in many years. Zhang Dawei , director of the Beijing Municipal Environmental Monitoring Centre, said: "Even the level of PM10 would rarely go up to 700 and 900 during autumn and winter. We believe that the high concentration of PM2.5 over the past days is very rare."
Zhang blamed the pollution on vehicle emissions, industrial production and cold weather, which saw a surge in the use of coal for central heating
A deputy director of the municipal economy and information technology commission, Li Hong , said 58 construction sites, metal refineries and chemical plants in Beijing had suspended production, and 41 other enterprises had scaled back production to cut emissions. The Beijing Morning Post said that Beijing Hyundai Motor suspended car production on Sunday.
Air quality in many northern and inland cities remained bad. The air quality index in Shijiazhuang , Hebei , was more than 400, against between 200 and 400 in Beijing. The index reached 500 in Jinan , Shandong , 405 in Zhengzhou , Henan , and 342 in Xian , Shaanxi . The National Meteorological Centre said visibility would drop to 200 metres in some areas.
In a sign that the serious smog was harming Beijing's image, YouTube founder Steve Chen complained in his microblog: "I like Shanghai and Hong Kong more, and I wish to move my Beijing team out."
The pollution triggered higher demand for face masks and air purifiers, as well as a spike in the number of people seeking treatment for respiratory diseases.
A salesman in a Shun Dian electrical appliance shop said: "Every day we have people buying air purifiers. Some even bought two air purifiers."
State media reported that the capital's children's hospitals had received up to 10,000 patients a day. One mother who took her girl to a hospital said: "I came here at 6am because my daughter kept coughing. Maybe I should go back home to southern China."
But Beijing's environmental protection bureau still put on a brave face, saying it had launched an eight-year plan to tackle air pollution, and claiming that pollutant levels had dropped by between 30 per cent and 70 per cent in the past 14 years.
Bureau spokesman Fang Li said air quality in the city last year was even better than in 2008, when Beijing spent huge amounts to improve air quality for the Olympics.