Debilitating smog has essentially shut down Harbin – one of China’s largest cities with a population of 11 million – due to health concerns and a limited visibility of just 33 feet. As of Monday morning, local schools and airports are closed and public transportation is limited as the entire city deals with the pollution, which has reached levels that are 50 times higher than those deemed safe by the World Health Organization.
While this is certainly not the first time China has faced obscenely high air pollution levels, the Harbin “Airpocalypse” pollution readings are really quite shocking. The local government reports an air quality index (AQI) of 500, the highest possible reading. Some parts of the city have reported a Particulate Matter Index of PM2.5 as high as 1,000 milligrams per cubic meter, levels that are especially worrisome to health officials. The World Health Organization considers a score above 500 to be more than 20 times the level of particulate matter considered safe.
Late last week, locals and officials became concerned over a dense smog that began to choke the industrial city. To make matters worse, the municipal’s coal-powered heating system was turned on over the weekend, further exacerbating the smog situation by Sunday morning.
“You can’t see your own fingers in front of you,” the city’s official news site explained. A resident of Harbin commented on China’s microblog platform, Sina Weibo, “You can hear the person you are talking to, but not see him.”
On Monday morning government officials issued a red alert and urged people to stay indoors, wear masks and eat pears, which are commonly believed in northern China to help irritated lungs. Despite warnings to stay off roads, there have been reports of two highway pile ups. According to NYTimes, hospital admissions increased by 30 percent over the weekend, with many people complaining of respiratory problems.
For years, China’s northeast region has implemented strict air quality measures to combat air pollution. To date local officials have replaced small heating boilers with urban central heating systems, banned high-sulfur coal, and enforced cleaner fuel standards for automobiles, but they blame most of the current pollution problems on the city’s central heating system, which is powered by coal. Located near the Russian border, Harbin is one of China’s coldest cities and it frequently faces the unenviable choice between clean air or warmth.
According to Reuters, officials are expecting the thick fog to stick around for 24 hours. Thankfully, the local forecast is calling for rain this week, which will hopefully clear out some stagnant pollutants. However, now that the WHO has declared pollution as an official carcinogen, attempts to find a more actionable and permanent solution could take on a new urgency.