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Record Breaking Smog Chokes Chinese City


You’ve probably never heard of the city of Harbin in northeast China, but 11 million people live there, and they can’t see ten meters in front of them. That’s because a toxic blanket of smog is smothering the city. Local monitors are recording record levels of small, dangerous particulate matter in the air.

This could be a harbinger of a bad winter for Chinese urbanites, as coal plants are coming back online to help heat homes. Since air pollution hit “crazy bad” levels in Beijing last January, the Chinese government has made a lot of noise about solving the country’s air pollution problem and has poured a lot of money into programs aimed at clearing its skies. But China relies heavily on dirty-burning coal to power its growth, currently burning nearly half of the world’s supply.

Monitors in Harbin saw concentrations of PM 2.5 (or fine particles, which are particularly dangerous), rise to 1,000 milligrams per cubic meter. That’s off-the-charts bad; go here and see for yourself. Or, for reference, the World Health Organization designates 25 milligrams per cubic meter and below as safe. Harbin, then, is 40 times over that limit.

Flights and schools in Harbin are cancelled, the public health is in danger, and the city’s economy is going to take a hit as well: one World Bank report estimated that air pollution costs the country 5.78 percent of its GDP every year in premature deaths, health care costs, and material damages.

China’s experience is reminiscent of London’s pea soup fog, or LA smog, so there’s a temptation to write off these events as unfortunate byproducts of industrialization. But the scale at which this is occurring in China’s cities is unprecedented, and there’s no reason that China needs to follow precisely the same development model that the West pioneered. The developed world is currently transitioning to an information economy. When it comes to air quality and public health, at least, China could probably benefit from skipping a step, along with all the growing pains that step entails.

[Man wearing a mask in Beijing image courtesy of Getty]

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  • Jon Camp

    Does this mean they’re canceling the annual Harbin Ice and Snow Festival for this year? I actually have heard of Harbin, amazingly enough. There are some really incredible sculptures on display each year — my sister went back in 2011, and a quick google search will give you a ton of pictures. Really impressive stuff.

  • BrianFrankie

    Just a quick correction – the concentrations you are referring to in this article should be micrograms/Nm3, not milligrams.

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