Life grinds to a halt as dense smog descends on northern Chinese cities

Dense, choking smog blanketed several northern cities yesterday, with visibility in some areas reduced to less than 10 metres. Drivers complained they were unable to see traffic lights.

Air pollution in Harbin, capital of Heilongjiang province, rose above the highest point on the government’s index for the second consecutive day. The city was forced to take the unprecedented step of closing kindergartens, primary and middle schools because of the smog.

In nearby Jilin province, Changchun and Jilin also suffered severe air pollution. Most of the province’s main highways were closed.

Readings at several monitoring stations in Harbin showed concentrations of PM2.5, pollutants smaller than 2.5 microns across and considered a serious health hazard, had reached 1,000 micrograms per cubic metre in the afternoon - 40 times the safety level recommended by the World Health Organisation.

“The choking air smells pungent, hurting my eyes and nose,” one resident wrote on Sina Weibo.

Others posted photos showing the city’s high-rises disappearing into the smog.

The city’s meteorological department issued a red alert for pollution in the morning, as visibility fell to less than 10 metres in downtown areas.

At the city’s international airport, at least 145 flights were cancelled and 53 postponed. All eight highways leading out of the city were closed and some city bus services were suspended, according to Harbin officials.

The city’s education bureau said kindergartens, primary schools and junior high schools would close for a second day today. It decided to close kindergartens and schools early yesterday morning, but was unable to pass the information to all pupils and parents in time.

A middle school teacher said the decision was made around 6am, and he was told about an hour later. In 15 minutes he managed to pass the announcement to all his pupils, but some of them had already left home for school.

A parent writing online blamed the education authorities for not making the decision earlier as the smog was already severe on Sunday.

“Some kids had already arrived at schools when they were told, and we parents had to take them back home again in such weather. It only creates more chaos,” the parent wrote.

Harbin environmental authorities said there had been little wind in the atmosphere above the city, and more coal was being burned because central heating had been turned on amid cooler weather. The situation was made worse by the burning of corn stalks in fields around the city.

Mainland authorities said this month that 5 billion yuan (HK$6.31 billion) had been set aside as incentives for Beijing and its surrounding regions to tackle air pollution.

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