Health fears rise as Beijing gasps for air
The sky over Beijing has darkened ominously. The sun is scarcely able to break through the thick smog as the skyscrapers of the city of 20 million disappear in the murk. The air has a burnt smell, and many people wear face masks. "I scarcely dare to breathe," one 47-year-old woman says. "It's unbelievable."
Copyright Deutsche Presse-Agentur, 2013
Beijing's residents are accustomed to poor air quality, but nobody can recall experiencing smog as bad as this. Some fear breathing may even be fatal. The queues at the children's hospital are longer than usual. "Yesterday we went into the park with our child. The coughing has been constant since we returned," a man named Zhou told the Fazhi Wanbao newspaper, referring to his 2-year-old daughter.
"The examination revealed inflamed bronchial passages," Zhou said. The number of sick children has risen sharply, and older people in particular are also suffering. Doctors are reporting an increase in the number of patients with heart and circulatory problems. The situation has been deteriorating since Thursday. On Saturday the air pollution index used by the US embassy showed atmospheric particulate pollution had soared to unprecedented levels.
It reached a "hazardous" level of 472 and then rose to 728 before reaching a shocking 845 in the evening. The original inventor of the scale did not imagine values above 500, and a new category of "extremely hazardous" has had to be created. Even the measurement index of the official authorities, which do not like to acknowledge serious air pollution, has reached the 500 limit.
The fine dust particulates capable of passing directly into the blood via the lungs were taking the measurement devices to the limit, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported. There is an official smog alert, but cars are allowed to continue driving, and factories are still pumping pollutants through their chimneys, even though new regulations this year allow a ban when conditions are "extremely bad."
"How bad does it have to get?" a 43-year-old man asked. So far, the only official advice was to remain indoors. "My lungs are hurting, and my eyes are burning" a secretary says. Internet bloggers are reacting with sarcasm. "Beijing, I really love you - to suffocation," one wrote. "There is a burning smell in the air. What's happened?" another blogger wrote.
The main cause behind the smell is the burning of coal by industry, power stations and heating plants. China draws two thirds of its energy from coal. Consumption rose by as much as 44 per cent during 2005-10 in the world's second-largest economy, according to figures published by Greenpeace. There is an increasing number of cars on the road, with more than 5 million in Beijing alone, up from 3 million five years ago.
A new study by Beijing University and Greenpeace estimated that 8,572 people died prematurely as a result of particulate pollution last year in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Xi'an. The researchers said the true number could be much higher because their sample was limited. Beijing and the other big cities will have to limit and ultimately cut back coal consumption in order to reduce particulates, switching to alternative, renewable energy sources instead, Greenpeace said. The environmental group noted that about half of all the coal in China is burnt in industrial boilers that are inefficient and emit more pollutants into the air than normal coal-fired power stations.