The worst smog of the winter so far enveloped Beijing Monday as recorded air pollution levels reached over 20 times international safety limits.
Authorities in the Chinese capital on Sunday issued the highest smog alert of the year, effective until Wednesday and advised the capital’s 20 million inhabitants to stay indoors.
Beijing’s PM2.5 concentration – referring to particles smaller than 2.5 micrometres – reached a high of 596 micrograms per cubic metre at 6 pm (1000 GMT) on Monday, according to the US embassy’s commonly quoted air-quality index.
That is in the highest band of the scale and is considered “hazardous.”
The daily maximum exposure to PM2.5 particles recommended by the World Health Organization is 25 micrograms per cubic metre.
The particles pose serious health hazards because they can embed deep in the lungs.
“I am so shocked by today’s smog. It’s like we live in a science fiction world and it makes me very depressed,” said Yinan Zhang Li, an office worker who has suffered from serious eyelid swelling she says is caused by the smog.
“The government only advises people to ‘not go outside’, which I dont think is a real measure to deal with the smog when the air inside is poor as well. The government isn’t doing enough to cut heavy-polluting factories,” Li said.
Other Beijing residents posted complaints on the social microblogging site Weibo. Many said they wanted to leave Beijing and others also criticized the government for inaction.
“The [government] only knows how to report the problem, but doesn’t know how to deal with it … the only [anti-smog] measure is the wind!” one commenter said.
In recent days, pollution readings of 300 to over 500 have been common in the capital, despite commitments from the government to improve the environment.
Beijing and many other northern cities in China are notorious for their winter smog, which is caused by a combination of air pollution and weather conditions.
The US embassy in Beijing recorded a PM2.5 peak of 900 micrograms in January 2013. The prolonged bout of record pollution that year prompted China to pursue more anti-pollution measures.
The Ministry of Environmental Protection has forecast severe pollution for Beijing and other areas of northern China until Wednesday, when strong winds are expected to clear some pollutants.
More than a quarter million people in China’s biggest cities could have their lives cut short from high levels of air pollution, according to a recent joint study by Peking University and Greenpeace.