The air pollution in Beijing reached dangerous proportions Wednesday night as pollution measurements hit record highs, surpassing last year’s levels. The following day, more than 20 million residents woke up to a city covered in thick, dense, gray smog. Some felt headaches and had difficulty breathing, prompting people to wear industrial grade face masks as they hurried off to school and work.
The data culled from the Beijing Environmental Protection Monitoring Center (BEPMC) about the pollution paints a dire picture. By Thursday morning, the Air Quality Index (AQI) as measured in six Beijing districts and in every southern suburban region surpassed 300 micrograms per cubic meter, which is considered the threshold for the worst level in a six-stage table. The readings in some selected places registered between 400 to 500 micrograms per cubic meter. Based on the environmental authority’s standard, anything above 300 micrograms per cubic meter is considered under the “severe pollution” category.
This most recent measurement of Beijing’s poor air quality is about 20 times higher than the 25 micrograms considered safe as declared by the World Health Organization (WHO). This means that the air particles in the air are very dangerous for people when inhaled.
The smog in Beijing reduced visibility to just a few meters. Chinese officials authorized the closing of the four major highways in Beijing, the Beijing to Shanghai, Beijing to Harbin, Daqing to Guangzhou and Beijing to Pinggu, in order to prevent major accidents from happening due to low visibility. The government likewise advised people to stay at home and avoid going outside. According to officials, the smog is forecast to last until Friday morning.
The U.S. Embassy in Beijing is likewise monitoring the situation, though they use a unit of measure called PM2.5 concentration. This PM2.5 is a representation of the diameter of tiny particles suspended in the air. These particles are dangerous, as they can travel deep into the lungs and cause serious health issues once there. Their findings indicated that by early Thursday morning, measurements were in the 400 range, or the “hazardous level,” according to their scale. By 4a.m. it had already hit 671 micrograms per cubic meter.
The air pollution in Beijing and other Chinese cities is blamed on coal-burning. Heavy smoke emissions from motor vehicles and factories, as well as on the many construction sites sprouting in the region, are also contributing factors. The smog is especially evident in winter when stagnant weather patterns occur. Coal burning as a source of heating is widely practiced during the cold months, especially in northern China.
The worsening air pollution has not only affected tourism in Beijing, but more importantly, it has affected the health of the residents. A recent study claimed that air pollution in China greatly contributed to the 1.2 million premature deaths in 2010. A similar study was also conducted in northern China where it revealed that people lived five years less on the average as compared to people living in southern China where air pollution is less severe.
In terms of tourism, with data taken from the Beijing Tourism Development Commission, a severe drop happened from January to November 2013 where only 4.2 million tourists visited Beijing. This is 10.3 percent lower compared to the same period in 2012. One major reason cited for the drop in tourist arrivals is the air pollution in the city.
The Beijing air pollution continues to beak records with these dangerously high levels. With measurements continuing to shoot up, the rise in health issues may be an indication of worse things to come. Unless the Chinese government initiates measures to mitigate air pollution, and commit themselves to implementing them seriously, the negative effects might not only be felt in China. There is the potential for dangerous conditions in other parts of the world as well.
By Roberto I. Belda