HARBIN, China – An airpocalypse engulfed the city of Harbin in northeastern China on October 21 and the city was forced to close schools, highways, and airports. The capital of Heilongjiang province and home to 11 million people was consumed by thick smog and visibility was less than a few meters. The air quality index (AQI) reached 500, a level so high it exceeded previous unsafe levels in Beijing and was considered a health emergency.
The entire city came to a standstill when PM2.5, a fine particulate matter reached the reading of 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter in parts of Harbin. The United States Environmental Protection Agency’s air quality standards advise that PM2.5 remain below 35 micrograms per cubic meter. It is unusual for particulate levels to reach this high, as such extreme levels only ensue in a dust storm or forest fire.
Photos from Harbin showed the visual extent of the air pollution. Residents are seen trying to shield themselves from the harmful effects of the smog by covering their mouths with masks and scarves. Vehicles moved at snail’s pace due to poor visibility.
The official Xinhua news agency attributed the emergency to the first day of the heating being turned on in the city for winter. A large part of China’s heating comes from coal-burning furnaces and it starts on the same day in all of the homes and offices.
NASA indicated that beside the cold weather and the lack of wind as dominant factors in fueling the airpocalypse, other human factors played a key role. The corn and wheat farmers in Harbin lit fires to burn off debris after the harvest that contributed heavily to the dense smog.
Meanwhile, a study by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified outdoor air pollution as cancerous or “carcinogenic to humans.”
“The air we breathe has become polluted with a mixture of cancer-causing substances,” Dr. Kurt Straif, Head of the IARC Monographs Section, said in a press release. “We now know that outdoor air pollution is not only a major risk to health in general, but also a leading environmental cause of cancer deaths.”
There were other parts of northeastern China that experienced the severe smog. This included Tangshan, approximately two hours away from Beijing, as well as Changchun, the capital of Jilin province, which borders Heilongjiang.
Many users on the Chinese micro blog site, Weibo, lamented about Harbin’s airpocalypse. A user named Justop88 said, “Too horrible, it’s like the end of the world in American movies.”
The pollution related illnesses are expected to increase. The Guardian reports that Deng Ying, a doctor with the Second Affiliated Hospital of Harbin Medical University, commented that the effect of the air pollution on people would be gradual.
“There won’t be a sudden outbreak of symptoms, but normally three to five days after the smoggy weather occurs, there is a peak in the number of people seeing doctors,” continued Ying.
The worsening air pollution that brought Harbin to a halt is putting increasing pressure on the nation’s leadership to control dirty power plants and reduce carbon emissions. But the nation’s environmental woes are not new. China is known as the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases and much of its industrial growth is powered by coal, which accelerates both pollution and climate change.
“In China we need to do our own part to try to combat global climate change. We also have to take measures to adapt to this [the impact of climate change]just like many other countries,” said Ma Jun, one of China’s most well-known environmentalists and director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE).
In an interview with The Guardian, Ma said the real barrier IPE faced in relation to pollution control is the lack of motivation and weak enforcement. Currently, polluters are not motivated to improve because of the low cost of fines for environmental violation.
Since the fines are lower than the cost of compliance, polluters chose to pay fines instead of protecting the environment. Most local governments place GDP growth as a key priority ahead of environmental protection.
However, Ma remains hopeful for a solution on China’s climate change problem. He surmises that the possibility may come from a local level.
“In China, most people don’t need to be convinced about climate change before they want to take action…Hundreds of millions of people are exposed to a bad pollution problem and they do want to solve this problem.”
– Flora Khoo