A dense blanket of smog covered most cities in northeast China this past week, reaching record pollution levels and grounding hundreds of flights at Beijing’s international airport. Public outrage over the quality of the air in the Chinese capital is rising high while the government insists that the problem is down to inclement weather and nothing to be overly worried about.
 
For most of this week the air in Beijing has been rated as “very unhealthy” and “hazardous” by the US Embassy air monitor, reputed as the most reliable indicator of pollution in the city. On Sunday it posted a new record: “beyond index”, as it registered 522 micrograms of particulate pollutants per cubic meter of air.
 
More and more Chinese citizens - and not just expats - are turning to the US Embassy's BeijingAir Twitter account for precise data on pollution, especially since Chinese authorities continued to describe the situation as “moderate” despite the thick cloud of smog – “fog,” according to them - that envelops the city. In fact, Beijing’s health authorities insist that the air is perfectly safe 80% of the time, even though the US monitor has rated the air as good only 13 days this year.
 
A street in downtown Beijing. Posted on YouKu.
 
There is a reason for such a big difference: the air monitor located on the US Embassy roof measures fine particles of 2.5 micrometers in size, deemed by scientists as the most harmful because they can penetrate the lungs easily. Local authorities only measure coarse particles of 10 micrometers in size, and average the results from several air monitors, including one 20 miles away from the city.
 
Pollution in Beijing has become one of the most hotly debated subjects on the Chinese web, with public outrage growing after stories surfaced that high-level government officials were equipped with expensive air purifiers. Authorities have tried to ease the controversy by promising to measure small particles by 2015 and opening one of their monitoring centres to the public. They have also questioned the credibility of the US air monitor.
 
It isn’t the first time the BeijingAir Twitter account has generated controversy. Two years ago, Chinese officials asked the US Embassy to stop tweeting about pollution in Beijing on the grounds that the information was “confusing” and could have “social consequences”, according to a confidential US State Department cable made public by WikiLeaks.
 

“It is advisable not to go out in such weather, but at the same time you have to work”

Peter Zhang (not his real name) is a translator in Beijing.
 
Everyone around me has been talking about the pollution in Beijing because it is affecting our daily lives. The situation is very serious: patients are being diagnosed with asthma and lung cancer all the time. It is advisable not to go out in such weather, especially when there is this hazy fog, but at the same time you have to work. For several years now, I have been wearing a surgical mask every time I am on the street or going to my workplace.
There was a lot of talk about how the situation had improved since the Olympics in 2008, but I don’t see any difference at all. I see two main reasons for the present situation: first, there are more than five million cars in the city and their carbon emissions are enormous. And second, we’re still burning too much coal.
 
I strongly believe the government should step up its measures to reduce pollution. Travel times have to be reduced so we can use public transport as much as possible and reduce our carbon print. We urgently need to shift to alternative sources of energy, like wind or solar, because we are using too much of our resources and we should be saving them for our next generation.”
 
 
Daytime photo at Beijing's international airport. Photo posted by Kim Rathcke Jensen on Twitter

“My flight was delayed 10 hours on account of the weather, but I only learnt that pollution was the cause when I reached Shanghai”

Salomón Simhon is a Colombian filmmaker working in Beijing. His flight from Beijing to Shanghai was delayed for almost 10 hours on account of pollution.
 
When I arrived at the airport there was no visibility at all. You could not see a single thing more than 100 metres away. They started delaying our flights, but they would only tell us it was because of the weather. My flight was pushed back every hour and the only explanation we would get was the weather. In the meantime, the airport became incredibly crowded. Hundreds of people were sitting on top of their bags and on the floor.
 
We were finally able to board our flight, but you still couldn’t even see the plane’s wing from inside. I only learnt that pollution was the cause of the delay when I reached Shanghai.”
 
Photo posted by Steven Zhang on Flickr.

“I don’t believe pollution has been worse than usual these past few days, but people are taking it more seriously”

Ponderzhang sells anti-pollution masks on Taobao, an online store that has reported sales of 30,000 masks this week.
 
I have seen sales of masks increase noticeably this week. I personally don’t believe pollution has been worse than usual in Beijing these past few days, but the amount of news reports about it has led people to take it more seriously.
 
Many people are using surgical masks, but anti-pollution masks are the only way of protecting oneself outside because they filter the particles of pollution in the air. These fine particles are especially harmful for young children and elderly people. These past days I haven’t left my house without wearing one and on Sunday, when it was particularly bad, I stayed inside all day.”
 
 
Photo posted on DZH forum.
Post written with freelance journalist Andrés Bermúdez Liévano.