Beijing’s second weekend of 2013 brought the inception of many phrases to make fun of the heavy smog engulfing the capital in recent days, such as “hand-in-hand, but can’t see your face.” The jokes bring a lighter side to the helplessness and suffering the public felt during the recent disastrous pollution.
From January 10 to 15, density of PM2.5 particles (those 2.5 microns or smaller that can damage the lungs) reached 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter in several Beijing districts. The capital was not alone. Nearly half of China’s cities were plagued with heavy air pollution and several smoggy days, which resulted in poor visibility for drivers, hospital emergency rooms packed with patients suffering from respiratory ailments, and empty store shelves where face masks and air purifiers are normally sold.
“The pollution density reached levels normally caused by a sandstorm but with more complicated chemical elements, which makes it more harmful to human health,” revealed Wang Yuesi, researcher with the Institute of Atmospheric Physics under the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Coal emissions and vehicle exhaust played major roles in the pollution, but weather conditions from January 10 to 13 — light wind, a warm front, and heavy fog — all coincided at the same moment to create the severe pollution event, according to Zhang Dawei, director of Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Monitoring Center. Also, Zhang added, pollutants from neighboring cities contributed to the capital’s bad air.
Governments of every level in China began to take action to address the heavy haze engulfing the cities. In Beijing, 58 factories producing building materials, metallurgy and chemicals stopped operating, and 41 more cut their emissions by 30 percent. Work at 28 construction sites that raise dust, such as leveling land, were also halted. Up to 30 percent of government vehicles were banned from roads on heavily polluted days. Drivers breaking the rules faced harsh penalties.