Beijing and much of industrial northern China are in the middle of a “red alert”, the highest level in China’s four-tiered pollution warning system.
The red alert affected 460 million people, according to Greenpeace East Asia, which calculated about 200 million were living in areas that had experienced levels of air pollution more than ten times above the guideline set by the World Health Organisation.
Members of the public closely watch levels of PM2.5 – particles measuring 2.5 microns across that are easily inhaled and damage lung tissue.
The World Health Organisation designates the safe level for the tiny, poisonous particles at 25 micrograms per cubic metre. Yesterday, the PM2.5 reading in Beijing climbed above 300. In many northern Chinese cities, the reading has exceeded 500.
State media reported that 169 flights have been cancelled at Beijing Capital International Airport, where visibility fell at one point to less than 300m.
Sections of Beijing’s sixth ring road, the outermost highway encircling the city of more than 20 million people, were shut down in an effort to keep cars off the roads.
Authorities have even removed charcoal grills from restaurants and banned spray painting in parts of the city, state media reported.
Adding to a sense of crisis, local news in recent days reported that hospitals were encountering a boom in cases of children with respiratory problems and preparing teams of doctors to handle the surge of pollution-related cases.
Photos showed waiting rooms crowded with parents carrying youngsters wearing face masks.
Outside the Capital Paediatrics Institute yesterday, parents voiced frustration about the toxic air for throat infections and the flu.
“He is coughing and breathing short, and always feeling sputum in his throat,” said Du Renxin, an IT worker, with his two-year-old, who has had to make monthly visits to the doctor.
China has long faced some of the worst air pollution in the world, blamed on its reliance of coal for energy and factory production, as well as a surplus of older, less efficient cars on its roads.
The alert is expected to end today.