The severe atmospheric pollution that has engulfed Beijing for nearly three weeks is "much more frightening than the Sars virus”, a top respiratory health expert said.
“There were many ways to get away from Sars... you could have avoided it by leaving [a room] or taking different methods of prevention, but air pollution, indoor pollution – you can’t run away from it,” said Zhong Nanshan, a Chinese Academy of Engineering professor and head of Guangzhou's Institute of Respiratory Diseases, during a news segment on CCTV on Wednesday.
Zhong played an instrumental research role during the 2003 outbreak and helped set up Guangdong's guidelines for prevention and management.
More flights were cancelled at Beijing Capital International Airport early Thursday morning after the haze and smog showed no signs of dissipating. Visibility levels fell to only 300 metres the evening before.
Low visibility caused the cancellation of at least 20 flights at the Beijing airport, which included international flights to and from Kiev, Paris, Tokyo and Newark.
Bad air and thick smog have infiltrated the city for about 19 days, the most on recent record.
Raw video: Smoggy and slippery Tiananmen Square on Thursday morning. Video by Simon Song
Doctors in Beijing said Thursday that hospital admissions for respiratory complaints rose in recent days.
The number of patients admitted to several hospitals in Beijing complaining of respiratory problems rose 20 per cent “in recent days", the Beijing Morning Post reported.
Half of those admitted to a children’s hospital in Beijing were suffering from respiratory infections, the newspaper said.
The latest data, from the city’s US embassy Air Quality Index at 10am, showed the level of PM2.5 – particulate matters small enough to cause threat to human health – to have dropped to 233 micrograms per cubic metre, lower than Wednesday's reading of 305 at 5pm, but still considered “very unhealthy”.
Beijing has urged residents to stay indoors. Unable to take a fresh breath of air for nearly a month, netizens took to Sina Weibo to vent their frustrations.
“We open the windows and suffocate from haze and air pollution. We close the windows and then suffer formaldehyde poisoning. This is the high price of GDP growth,” one user said.
Beijing has temporarily halted operations at 103 factories, while government agencies and state-owned companies have been ordered to cut vehicle use by 30 per cent.
The rules however prove difficult to enforce. Although, government cars have been ordered off the road, the Beijing Times reported on Wednesday that 875 vehicles from the government-run bus line had flouted the restrictions and taken to the roads.
Large swathes of northern China have also been affected.
In Jinan, Shandong province, PM2.5 stood at 207 on Thursday morning. Jinan traffic police said on Weibo that traffic police were now being forced to wear N-95 protective facemasks after 37 per cent of traffic officers reported flu-like symptoms, coughing and tightness in the chest.
Additional reporting from Agence France-Presse