China’s smog­gi­est city closes schools amid pub­lic anger

Sixth day un­der an op­pres­sive haze

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

SHI­JI­AZHUANG, China: China’s smog­gi­est city closed schools yes­ter­day as much of the coun­try suf­fered its sixth day un­der an op­pres­sive haze, spark­ing pub­lic anger about the slow re­sponse to the threat to chil­dren’s health. Since Fri­day a chok­ing mi­asma has cov­ered a large swathe of north­east­ern China, leav­ing more than 460 mil­lion gasp­ing for breath.

Shi­ji­azhuang, the cap­i­tal of He­bei prov­ince, was one of more than 20 cities which went on red alert Fri­day evening, trig­ger­ing an emer­gency plan to re­duce pol­lu­tion by shut­ting pol­lut­ing fac­to­ries and tak­ing cars off the road, among other mea­sures.

Nowhere has been hit as hard as Shi­ji­azhuang, which has seen a huge rise in pol­lu­tion. But the city’s ed­u­ca­tion de­part­ment waited un­til Tues­day evening to an­nounce it was clos­ing el­e­men­tary schools and kinder­gartens, fol­low­ing sim­i­lar moves in nearby Bei­jing and Tian­jin.

The an­nounce­ment said mid­dle and high schools could close on a vol­un­tary ba­sis. The state­ment on the ed­u­ca­tion de­part­ment’s of­fi­cial so­cial me­dia ac­count pro­voked anger. “Are mid­dle school stu­dents’ bod­ies’ air pu­ri­fiers?” one in­cred­u­lous com­men­ta­tor asked, adding: “Are you go­ing to wait for us all to be­come sick be­fore you step up to fix this?”

A pic­ture from Linzhou City in neigh­bor­ing He­nan prov­ince, show­ing more than 400 stu­dents sit­ting an exam on a foot­ball pitch af­ter their school was forced to close, was widely cir­cu­lated on so­cial me­dia and fur­ther fu­elled dis­con­tent.

The city ed­u­ca­tion and sports bu­reau has sus­pended the school prin­ci­pal for or­gan­is­ing the out­door ex­ams, the state news agency Xin­hua re­ported.

‘I have to work’

The streets of Shi­ji­azhuang, pop­u­la­tion 10.7 mil­lion, reeked of coal smoke Wednesday as pedes­tri­ans and cy­clists flit­ted through a thick grey haze that re­duced build­ings to gauzy sil­hou­ettes. Only a hand­ful wore the white dis­pos­able masks that have be­come in­creas­ingly com­mon in Bei­jing since the gov­ern­ment is­sued its first-ever red alert last De­cem­ber. “I don’t like this pol­lu­tion but I have to work,” street sweeper Dong Xiai, 44, told AFP, adding his work­mates do not wear masks be­cause the city does not pro­vide them.

Shi­ji­azhuang has seen 10 bouts of se­ri­ous air pol­lu­tion so far this win­ter, ac­cord­ing to the China Daily news­pa­per, putting it top of the en­vi­ron­ment min­istry’s list of cities with the worst air qual­ity.

Over the last 48 hours, lev­els of PM 10 — a mea­sure of par­tic­u­lates in the at­mos­phere-have been lit­er­ally off the charts in the city, re­peat­edly max­ing out at 999.

Lev­els of the smaller PM 2.5 par­ti­cles, tiny enough to be ab­sorbed into the blood­stream and thought to be a ma­jor con­trib­u­tor to res­pi­ra­tory and car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease, reached as high as 733, more than 29 times the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion’s daily rec­om­mended max­i­mum of 25.

The in­dus­trial city is known for its phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal and tex­tiles in­dus­tries. But the likely ex­pla­na­tion for the chok­ing haze are steel mills and coal mines in the sur­round­ing prov­ince of He­bei.

Last month the en­vi­ron­ment min­istry said pol­lu­tion had wors­ened in Oc­to­ber over the same pe­riod last year, de­spite a gen­er­ally pos­i­tive trend in air qual­ity. And the prob­lem may con­tinue to worsen, ac­cord­ing to a pa­per is­sued over the week­end by Green­peace, which said that data and fore­casts sug­gest that “De­cem­ber will con­tinue the trend of stag­nat­ing or wors­en­ing air qual­ity”.

An ar­ti­cle in the China Daily linked the in­creas­ing haze to ris­ing steel prices.

Gov­ern­ment at­tempts to curb pol­lu­tion by clos­ing steel mills and im­pos­ing emis­sion re­stric­tions have driven up steel prices, the ar­ti­cle quoted an ex­pert on the in­dus­try as say­ing.

Iron­i­cally, that has in­cen­tivized the re­main­ing steel­mak­ers to pro­duce more. Shi­ji­azhuang’s smog and its gov­ern­ment’s ret­i­cence to act have tested the pa­tience of not just the pub­lic but even state me­dia.

On Tues­day Xin­hua pub­lished an ar­ti­cle scold­ing of­fi­cials in the city for wait­ing to can­cel schools even though smog was “off the charts”. “If (of­fi­cials) turn a deaf ear or act in­dif­fer­ent, and the peo­ple, es­pe­cially mi­nors, are ex­posed to po­ten­tial health risks, this is un­doubt­edly a dere­lic­tion of duty,” it said. But one fa­ther at least said he was glad of the smog be­cause it gave him the chance to take his 10-year-old son to work. Af­ter­wards, he said, “we went to the mall to buy some toys”.

SHI­JI­AZHUANG, China: A young girl waits by the road with a rel­a­tive on a heav­ily pol­luted day yes­ter­day.

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