The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Chinese city shut down by off-the-charts pollution

A man pushes a bike onto a bridge during a day of heavy pollution in Harbin in northeast China’s Heilongjiang province Monday Oct. 21, 2013. Visibility shrank to less than half a football field and small-particle pollution soared to a record 40 times higher than an international safety standard in the northern Chinese city as the region entered its high-smog season. (AP Photo) ]

The northern Chinese city of Harbin was effectively shut down Monday after suffocating in a dense soup of pollution.

Reuters reports fine particulate pollution, or PM2.5, exceeded 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter of air in the city of 11 million people.  The astonishing concentration of pollution is more than 40 times worse than the safe level (25) set by the World Health Organization.

“The smog not only forced all primary and middle schools to suspend classes, but shut the airport and some public bus routes, the official Xinhua news agency reported, blaming the emergency on the first day of the heating being turned on in the city for winter,” Reuters says. “Visibility was reportedly reduced to 10 meters [30 feet].”

A stagnant weather pattern, characterized by sinking air, has allowed the toxic brew of pollutants to collect and stay put.  Strong high pressure literally surrounds northern China on three sides, shutting down any wind that might scatter the pollution and transport it out of the region.

“The pollution in Harbin has caused a 30 percent surge in hospital admissions of patients with respiratory problems, according to the local news media,” reports the New York Times.

The industrialization of China has led to repeated incidents of hazardous air quality.  In January, the particulate matter concentration surged to 886 in Beijing.  The pollution was so thick, you could taste it in the air, one traveler said.

In Harbin, air quality should be compromised for one more day before a cold front mixes up the pollution and transports much of it out of the region.

Perspective: While Harbin’s particular matter level peaked over 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter, today’s level in Washington, D.C. is 13 – in the good range.

Related: Breathing easier: Washington, D.C.’s remarkable improvement in air quality