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Airpocalypse: Pollution 56 Times Safe Levels

writer: Graham Land source:

WITH air quality levels of up to 56 times what the World Health Organization considers safe, the northeastern Chinese city of Shenyang has become the latest focus for air pollution in the world’s most populous country.

Welcome to the airpocalypse

As Southeast Asia struggles with its own annual “hazepocalypse” from mostly Indonesian forest fires, China is in the throws of an “airpocalypse”, but not in the places that we usually hear about.

While most media attention regarding Chinese smog — as well as sometimes-temporary government cleanup efforts — normally focuses on the capital, Beijing, the recent skyrocketing of airborne particulate matter measurements in northeastern China’s rust belt is now grabbing headlines.

From the Wall Street Journal:

Average levels of fine particulate matter that are damaging to human health—known as PM2.5—reached more than 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter in Shenyang this weekend. That prompted a code red warning from the local Environmental Protection Bureau, which says outdoor activities were canceled at schools Monday, though the bureau said in a statement classes were going ahead.

According to the South China Morning Post, these are the highest pollution levels ever recorded in China since air quality data began to be monitored and published in real time back in 2013.

Smog Chinese city #Shenyang 56 times WHO limit #smogfreeworld#airpocalypse @NLinKorea

— Marten Lammertink (@MartLammertink) November 9, 2015

What is causing the deadly spike in smog? And why in the northeast?

State response has been to ramp up inspections and limitations on factories in the area, with claims of significant reductions, though Monday’s levels were still hazardous — some 20 times higher than New York City, to provide some perspective.

In recent years, efforts to improve air quality in Shenyang include transitioning from coal to natural gas for heating homes as well as moving factories away from the city. Yet with its eight million residents and long history of heavy industry and manufacturing, Shenyang still has a lot of work to do when it comes to improving its air.

There are a range of factors believed to be contributing to Shenyang’s smog. These include:

  • Coal-powered domestic heating, which is still widespread and naturally increases during the colder months

  • The seasonal burning of straw on farms near the city

  • Car use, which is steadily increasing in China’s urban centers

  • A long established manufacturing economy focused on heavy industry, i.e. the expensive, intensive, polluting and complex manufacturing of large products

Is there hope for China’s air?

Just four years ago Shenyang was being heralded as an environmental success story in the making, with Yale Environment 260 calling it “almost unrecognizable” compared to its hyper-industrial past. This makes the current situation all the more depressing. If so much work can be put into greening an industrial city, only to have its air quality slump back into hazardous levels, what hope is there for China’s numerous efforts to fight pollution? This is especially true as the country continues to embrace the very industry-driven economic growth that creates the pollution in the first place.

‘Tis the season: Chinese smog hits Seoul early this year

Chinese air pollution doesn’t all stay in China. Every fall season, South Korea experiences an increase in haze, largely due to the previously-referred-to annual climb in coal use for heating Chinese homes. As the weather gets colder, coal-fired power plants contribute to pollution from within South Korea as well.

This year the pollution from China has come early. While South Korean cities have not experienced anything like the levels recorded this past weekend in Shenyang, particulate matter readings approached “unhealthy” (a concentration of over 100 per cubic meter) in Seoul and were even worse in Incheon.