Chinese government up front about smog hazard

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The pollution typically gets worse in the winter because of an increase in coal burning.

“The pollution has affected large areas, lasted for a long time and is of great density. This is rare for Beijing in recent years,” Zhang Dawei, director of Beijing’s environment monitoring center, told a news conference Monday.

Unhealthy air

According to the government monitoring, levels of PM2.5 particles were above 700 micrograms per cubic meter Saturday, and declined by Monday to levels around 350 micrograms — still far above the World Health Organization’s safety levels of 25.

In separate monitoring by the U.S. Embassy, levels peaked Saturday at 886 micrograms — and the air quality was labeled as “beyond index.”

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the Chinese government’s decision since December to monitor and publicize smog levels is a positive development.

She told a news briefing it is “a significant start in terms of taking care of the health and welfare of their own people on this issue.”

Mrs. Nuland added that the U.S. is open to sharing information about how it arrives at its own data on pollution levels.

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,” Dr. 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.

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