Health Beijing closes schools and bans cars as smog health fears reach highest level

By EDWARD WONGDEC. 8, 2015

Heavy smog surrounding the West Lake in Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province in China on Tuesday. Because of industrial coal burning, Chinese cities regularly have among the world’s worst air quality. Credit China Daily, via Reuters

BEIJING — Emergency measures adopted for Beijing’s first “red alert” over air pollution left millions of schoolchildren cooped up at home, forced motorists off the roads and shut down factories across the region on Tuesday, but they failed to dispel the toxic air that shrouded the Chinese capital in a soupy, metallic haze.

Beijing announced Monday night that from Tuesday morning to noon on Thursday, it was putting in place measures that included closing schools, limiting the number of cars on the road based on their license plate numbers, and banning fireworks and barbecues. Factories and construction sites closed.

Yet at 4 p.m. Tuesday, walking through Beijing was like strolling through a coal mine, and the municipal air quality index read 308, rated “hazardous” by United States standards — a situation in which people should not set foot outdoors. Because of industrial coal burning, Chinese cities regularly have air of that quality, among the world’s worst.

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“I have to watch my son because there is no kindergarten today,” said Kan Tingting, 35, a manager of a cafe who had to stay home with her 3-year-old. “What bothers me the most is that my son may have a very negative view of nature. He loves nature much less than he would in a normal environment. I don’t want him to grow up thinking nature is ugly.”
Ms. Kan said that two of her Korean co-workers had fallen ill on Tuesday — one with a skin allergy and the other with a burning throat — but that Chinese colleagues who had made it to the cafe near Chaoyang Park seemed fine.

“If you ask me, I think it should be a red alert every day,” she said. “I have a car, too, but I think the license plate odd-even number restriction should be every day. All the factories should move away.”

Leaving Beijing is tempting, but not possible, she added. “If not for my work, I’d move away in a heartbeat,” she said. “ I used to live in Australia, so I could move there. Or anywhere in southern China is better than the north.”

The current spell of bad air in Beijing began on Sunday, and by Monday morning, the quality had already deteriorated to what the United States labels a “very unhealthy” level, when everyone can be affected. Still, it was well below the toxic bout that hit the city in the final weekend of November. That was the worst stretch of pollution this year, and municipal officials were roundly criticized for declaring only an orange alert at that time rather than going to code red. The sudden announcement Monday night may have been their attempt to make up for the oversight.

“The issuing of a ‘red’ pollution alert means, first and foremost, that the Beijing authorities are taking air quality, and related health issues, very seriously,” Dr. Bernhard Schwartländer, the representative of the World Health Organization in China, said in a written statement. The group helped lead a 2010 study whose data showed outdoor air pollution contributed to 1.2 million premature deaths in China in 2010, nearly 40 percent of the global total.

Greenpeace East Asia also praised Beijing for raising the alarm, after having criticized it a week earlier for its lack of action. “The red alert is a welcome sign of a different attitude from the Beijing government,” said Dong Liansai, a climate and energy campaigner. “However, this, the latest of a series of airpocalypses to hit Beijing, is also a firm reminder of just how much more needs to be done to ensure safe air for all.”

The announcement on Monday took the city’s 20 million residents by surprise. Parents checked with groups on smartphone messaging apps to see if schools were indeed shutting down. Some workers said they would have no option but to drive to the office, despite half of all cars being ordered not to drive each day.

“There is no other way for me to go to work besides driving,” said Zhao Lin, 36, a technology salesman. “I have to drive for more than an hour each way to commute to work every day.”

“I’m not supposed to drive tomorrow because my car has an even number license plate, but I have to,” he added. “They can fine me or dock me points. I have no choice. I think they can’t see my license plate in this smog anyway.”
Mr. Zhao said he had left his 5-year-old son at home with his 65-year-old mother, who was in poor health. Neither would be going outside, he said.

“Instead of shutting down the schools, why don’t they just put air purifiers in the classrooms?” he said. “We pay the kindergartens to watch the children, and then we have to watch them when the air is bad? Do we get a refund for the three days without kindergarten?”

Since 2013, when an intense round of pollution slammed northern China, Beijing has had a color-coded emergency response plan. That plan was strengthened with new measures in March. Despite all that, Beijing had never sounded a red alert, and residents had wondered why. Did city officials or the top Communist Party leaders worry they would lose face? Did they fear the economic losses that might result?

“They probably didn’t declare a red alert last week because they didn’t want to slow down the economy,” said Wang Bei, a university lecturer who was at home with a 10-year-old son. “Shutting down factories is not ideal for the economy, but health should come first.”

“Air pollution is a huge problem that we ignored early on, while we concentrated on economic development,” she added. “Now we are paying the price for that. It only takes a second for someone to fall gravely ill, but it takes a long time to recover. Now China is that ill person trying to recover from air pollution.”

Ms. Wang said that she regularly checked a phone app to monitor the air quality and that she and her son wore masks outdoors and turned on purifiers at home. But she said she was worried about the invisible effects on her son’s health. “I wonder if this bad air is going to give him irreversible damage, 10 or 20 years down the road,” she said.

On one street, a young salesman, Liu Jia, sat on a bench, puffing on a cigarette. Half the pedestrians around him were wearing masks.

“They say the air quality has improved, but to me it feels about the same,” he said. “I know that smoking is bad, worse than the smog, but my work is too stressful.”

“I can choose to smoke a cigarette,” he said, then looked up. “But there’s no choice in this.”

Above him, the sky was the color of ash.

Chris Buckley contributed reporting, and Mia Li contributed research.