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Severe Beijing smog prompts unusual transparency

Published on NewsOK Modified: January 14, 2013 at 9:27 pm •  Published: January 14, 2013
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In separate monitoring by the U.S. Embassy, levels peaked Saturday at 886 micrograms — and the air quality was labeled as "beyond index."

City authorities ordered many factories to scale back emissions and were spraying water at building sites to try to tamp down dust and dirt that worsen the noxious haze.

Schools in several districts were ordered to cancel outdoor flag-raisings and sports classes, and in an unusual public announcement, Beijing authorities advised all residents to "take measures to protect their health."

The Beijing Shijitan Hospital received 20 percent more patients than usual at its respiratory health department, most of them coughing and seeking treatment for bronchitis, asthma and other respiratory ailments, Dr. Huang Aiben said.

PM2.5 are tiny particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometers in size, or about 1/30th the average width of a human hair. They can penetrate deep into the lungs, and measuring them is considered a more accurate reflection of air quality than other methods.

"Because these dust particles are relatively fine, they can be directly absorbed by the lung's tiny air sacs," Huang said. "The airway's ability to block the fine dust is relatively weak, and so bacteria and viruses carried by the dust can directly enter the airway."

Prolonged exposure could result in tumors, he added.

Demand spiked for face masks, with a half dozen drugstores in Beijing reached by phone reporting they had sold out. A woman surnamed Pang working at a Golden Elephant pharmacy said buyers were mainly the elderly and students, and that the store had sold 60 masks daily over the past few days.

The bulk of the smog choking Chinese cities is belched out by commercial trucks, but authorities have put off enforcing tougher emissions standards to spare small businesses the burden of paying for cleaner engines.

"It is not a problem of technology. It's more about consumer affordability. Increasing the emissions standard greatly increases the cost," said John Zeng, Asia-Pacific director for LMC Automotive Ltd., a research firm. "Most buyers are small business owners, and they are very price-sensitive."

Upgrading to cleaner engines would cost about 20,000 yuan ($3,200), adding about 8 percent to a typical sticker price of a vehicle, according to Zeng.

The haze even inspired a song parody, widely circulated online. "Thick haze permeates every street in Beijing, the pollutant index is worse than the charts can read. I'm surrounded by buildings in a fairyland and I see people wearing masks all over the city," go the lyrics. "Who is traveling in fog and who is crying in fog? Who is struggling in fog and who is suffocating in fog?"

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Associated Press writers Louise Watt and Joe McDonald and researchers Flora Ji and Yu Bing in Beijing contributed to this report.