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Beijing, with a population of over 20 million, has suffered from hazardous air pollution since last January, which has threatened the people greatly since the pollutants can cause fatal health problems.
On January 12, the air quality monitor run by the U.S. embassy in Beijing reported an air pollution level of 886, which directly indicated PM2.5 – a fine particulate less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter – is off its maximum level of 500. This warns that everyone should refrain from all physical activities outdoors. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the average concentrations of PM2.5 per cubic meter should not be more than 25 micrograms, yet the readings on some days in January exceeded 40 times of the standard.
The effect of the PM 2.5 is even more disastrous: The U.S. embassy Beijing air quality monitor website stated “PM 2.5 particulates are of concern since they are small enough to directly enter the lungs and even the blood stream,” and warned that ‘hazardous’ level of air quality can result in “Serious aggravation of heart or lung disease and premature mortality in persons with cardiopulmonary disease and the elderly; serious risk of respiratory effects in general population.”
Nonetheless, you did not need to check the Air Quality Index (AQI) to see how dreadful the air quality was. The darkness from the extreme dustiness lasted the whole afternoon on that day, and the thick dusty layers hindered sight within approximately 300 meters, where even the huge skyscrapers were hardly visible. “The smog was so thick that more than 50 flights were cancelled at Beijing Capital International Airport, causing chaos ahead of Chinese New Year, when city-dwellers travel to see relatives” reported the Independent on January 29. The effect of the ‘hazardous’ level of the air quality was immediate. Dr. Huang of the Beijing Shijitan hospital said in an interview with CBS News that the number of patients hospitalized because of chronic bronchitis or other respiratory illnesses had increased by 20% after the hazardous air quality days.
Yet, this catastrophic phenomenon did not just happen for an occasional day. Beijing has been besieged by the hazy and dusty skies for the last several months at a consistent level, and there have been only a few days of blue skies; the AQI reads under the degree of ‘Unhealthy’. Even China’s national newspaper, China Digital Times, published an article titled “Beijing Air Quality: Worse than SARS.”
As a response to the people’s outcry, the city government took urgent action. According to Bloomberg on the last January 29, Beijing decided to temporarily shut down the 103 factories around the city, and the government agencies and state-owned companies were commended to reduce vehicle use by 30% until the end of January.
The scenery of Beijing in the past months has been changed visibly. People started wearing PM 2.5-blocking masks outside, and frequently check AQI via the application on their mobile phones. The term ‘PM 2.5’ is often being discussed everywhere – in newspapers, television and people’s daily dialogue. Some companies distribute free 3M dust masks for college students on campus instead of their traditional marketing strategies of giving a small gift such as stationary.
It is estimated to affect the job market in Beijing as well. On April 1, Financial Times reported that the ‘Airpocalypse’ has made it difficult for companies to find international work talent, and many expatriates are planning to leave Beijing due to the concern for health. There are nearly 200,000 foreign residents in Beijing and many of the expats are professionals with high-earning jobs, which contribute greatly to the socio-economic development of the city, the news report said.
“Air pollution is a major problem in China because of the country’s rapid pace of industrialization, reliance on coal power, explosive growth in car ownership and the sometimes disregard for environmental laws,” said CNN news on January 19. China has been the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter since 2007, and approximately 70 percent of its total energy still comes from coal.
The 2012 Cancer Registry Annual Report showed that cancer-related mortality in China has increased by 465 percent in the past three decades and the lung cancer was the top cause among all the cancers.
According to the World Bank (WB) report, 20 cities in China listed on the 30 most polluted cities in the world. In the recent study by Greenpeace and Peking University’s School of Public Health, it is estimated that the exposure to PM2.5 caused more than 8,500 premature deaths in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Xi’an in 2012.
Image credit: People in Beijing via Flickr.com