In the industrial city of Harbin, home to more than 10 million people, vehicles crawled through the smog with fog lights on or emergency lights flashing. Bus service was canceled, a major highway was closed and hospital admissions soared by 30 percent, local media reported.
The smog descended on Harbin on Sunday evening. On Monday, the measurement of fine particulate matter in the air known as PM2.5 reached 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter in parts of the city, 40 times what the World Health Organization
That was even higher than the levels recorded during Beijing’s “airpocalypse,” when a dense, yellow smog cloaked the capital city for several days in January. The Washington metro area’s PM2.5 level on Tuesday was 12.6 micrograms per cubic meter.
On Monday, visibility was so low in Harbin, about 780 miles northeast of Beijing, that two city buses got lost while plying their regular routes. Pedestrians wore masks or placed their hands over their faces as a precaution.
“I did not even dare to cross the street,” said Zhang Xiaofeng, a 24-year-old bulldozer driver, who complained of eye pain and coughing bouts because of the smog. “I waited and waited at the intersection and looked again and again, but I couldn’t see if any cars were coming. Even the traffic lights were invisible.”
On Tuesday morning, the level of fine particles in the air reached 822 micrograms per cubic meter. Although the air quality had improved by lunchtime, the fog descended again in the afternoon, residents said; primary and middle schools and the airport remained closed for a second day, though high schools reopened.
More than 250 flights were canceled Monday, according to state media.
“I can’t even see the apartment building next to mine, which is only 10 or 20 meters away,” said 42-year-old homemaker Li Li, contacted by telephone. “There is a food market in our compound: I know it is open because I can hear it, but I can’t see it. I’m not going out, and I won’t let my child go out.”
In the city of Changchun, which lies about 180 miles closer to Beijing by road, the level of fine particles peaked at 700 in some areas Tuesday, and the airport was closed for several hours.
Officials told local media that the smog in northeast China worsened after the government turned on its coal-fired public heating system Sunday. They also blamed straw-burning in villages at the end of the harvest season and a low-pressure weather zone that trapped the polluted air.