Northern China is braced for more days of hazardous air quality following a week of toxic smog in Beijing that has consistently averaged more than 16 times the World Health Organisation’s recommended upper limit.
On Tuesday, the WHO representative in China described the choking pollution as a “crisis” and urged residents in the Chinese capital to stay home and “basically cope with it as much as possible”.
For the first time since it introduced an emergency smog alert system in October, the Beijing government issued an “amber alert”, its second-highest warning level, last Friday and then reissued the same alert on Monday.
But it has stopped short of issuing a red alert, which would require schools to shut down, industrial companies to close and half the city’s cars to stay off the streets, even though the smog levels appear to meet the government’s own criteria for such action.
On Tuesday, the environmental group Greenpeace launched a public campaign to pressure the government to raise the warning level to red.
“[Northern China] has already had air pollution readings beyond the index for many days but the warning level remains at amber? No factories stopped production, no classes cancelled, no limits on cars and no announcements of which factories have stopped production,” Greenpeace said on its official Weibo microblog account. “We call for a red alert smog warning now.”
The decision to raise the alert level to red can only be taken by an “emergency response committee” of municipal officials and even though air quality appears to meet the criteria, the government seems unwilling to bring the capital to a halt.
According to the new warning system introduced in October, the government should issue a red alert when the volume of fine pollutants in the air is forecast to exceed 300 micrograms per cubic metre for three consecutive days.
Since last Friday, the volume has barely dropped below 400 and on Tuesday afternoon the reading was around 460, a level described as “hazardous” to the general population and especially dangerous for young people, the elderly and those with breathing problems.
“In a situation when you have very bad air, as we have right now, the discussion must be primarily how we can protect the individual,” Dr Bernhard Schwartl?nder, WHO Representative in Beijing, told journalists at a press briefing on China’s health reforms on Tuesday.
“Of course the longer term discussion on how we can reduce the levels of emissions is a very important one but right now we have a crisis that we have to deal with and hence the recommendation to stay inside.”
As it raised the warning level to amber last Friday, the Beijing government said it had advised schools to cancel outdoor activities and ordered 36 industrial companies to halt production, with another 75 told to cut production to reduce emissions.
But the situation deteriorated over the weekend and by Monday the “airpocalypse” covered an area across northern China of around 1m sq kms, roughly equal to the combined area of the US states of California, Oregon, Washington and half of Nevada.
At the press briefing on Tuesday, WHO regional director for the Western Pacific, Dr Shin Young-soo, pointed out that some studies published recently in Beijing show lung cancer rates in the capital have doubled in the past decade or so.
Although it is unclear how much of the increase was caused by air pollution, Dr Shin did point out that there is already a wealth of evidence linking high levels of pollutants to increased rates of cardiovascular and lung disease.
Additional Reporting by Gu Yu
“在你面对非常糟糕的空气的情况下——就像我们现在面对的情况——讨论的主要内容必须是我们如何保护个人，”世卫组织驻京代表施贺德博士(Dr Bernhard Schwartl?nder)周二在一个有关中国医疗改革的新闻发布会上对记者表示。
在周二的新闻发布会上，世卫组织西太平洋区主任申英秀博士(Dr Shin Young-soo)指出，近期在北京发布的一些研究显示，中国首都的肺癌发病率在过去10年左右的时间里增加了一倍。