Beijing schools close as some take a smog holiday

Ian Mader
Associated Press

Beijing — – Some residents took a smog holiday away from Beijing on Tuesday as the Chinese capital launched restrictions under its first red alert for pollution, closing schools, suspending factories and keeping half the vehicles off the streets.

Although Beijing has in recent years seen smog at much worse levels than Tuesday’s, the latest bout of pollution was the first to trigger a red alert under a 2-year-old system that requires a forecast at the outset of at least 72 hours of consecutive high pollution.

The capital’s hazardous smog has persisted despite the Chinese government’s stated priority of cleaning up the legacy of pollution left from years of full-tilt economic growth. Most of the smog is blamed on coal-fired power plants, along with vehicle emissions, construction and factory work.

“This is modern life for Beijing people. We wanted to develop, and now we pay the price,” Beijing office worker Cao Yong said during a break from work.

A grey soupy haze subsumed Beijing’s unique landmarks, convenience stores sold air-filtering masks at brisk rates and health-food stores promoted pear juice as a traditional Chinese tonic for the lungs.

“And air purifiers at home are a must,” Beijing resident Sun Yuanyuan said at a downtown Beijing juice shop.

Under restrictions in effect Tuesday through Thursday, schools were urged to close voluntarily unless they had good air filtration. However, Beijing’s education commission later followed up with a separate order for schools to close during the three-day alert. Some residents grumbled about the inconvenience, and a few international schools sought permission to reopen Wednesday.

A slew of Beijingers said via social media they planned to escape the gloom. They needed to travel relatively far, however, because nearly all of China’s northeast was affected, and many cities — including nearby Shijiazhuang — were even worse than Beijing.

After hearing of the school closings late Monday, Beijing mother Jiang Xia booked tickets for a 2,000-mile flight to the relatively clean southwestern city of Kunming, for herself and her 8-year-old daughter who she said suffers nosebleeds in the smog. She said in an interview from Kunming that they hectically packed before dawn Tuesday for their flight.

“But when we arrived in Kunming and breathed in this clean, fresh air, I was very glad I made this move — a very wise decision,” Jiang said.

Readings of PM2.5 particles climbed above 300 micrograms per cubic meter in some parts of the city Tuesday and were expected to continue rising before improving Thursday. The World Health Organization designates the safe level for the tiny, poisonous particles at 25.

Factory suspensions and several other restrictions will seek to reduce the dust and other particulate matter in the city of 22.5 million people. Use of a car is restricted to every other day depending on its license plate, and officials planned to deploy extra subway trains and buses.