Thick smog enveloped a major Chinese city for a third day on Tuesday, with schools and a regional airport shut and poor visibility forcing ground transport to a halt in places.
Images from Harbin, a northeastern city of more than 10 million people and the host of a popular annual ice festival, showed roads shrouded in smog, with visibility in some areas reduced to less than 50 metres.
Flights remained severely delayed, after more than 250 flights were cancelled at the local airport on Monday, according to Chinese media.
As Harbin residents struggled in the smog, officials in Beijing unveiled a raft of emergency measures to tackle the capital’s notoriously bad air pollution, saying they hoped other regions would follow suit.
Air pollution levels in Harbin were easing on Tuesday afternoon but remained as much as 15 times the levels deemed safe by the World Health Organisation.
Figures from monitoring stations showed that concentrations of PM2.5, the tiny airborne particles considered most harmful to health, averaged 266 microgrammes per cubic metre in the city, with one station showing 415.
That figure was down from Tuesday morning’s level of 822 micrograms per cubic metre and Monday’s level of 1,000. The WHO’s recommended standard is 25.
The overall air quality index had improved to a measure of 397, or “severely polluted”. Earlier on Tuesday, the figure exceeded 500, the highest level on the Chinese scale.
Residents of the far northeastern city described a smog that began choking people as much as a week ago but worsened considerably on Sunday night.
“You could feel the burning smell in the air, and on the second day the thick fog just blocked your way, keeping you from seeing anything,” said Song Ting, a 21-year-old student in Harbin. “It’s still disgusting.”
Zhao Yao, a 25-year-old IT engineer, said: “You feel sick when you breathe. You can’t see many people on the street now, and some people wear three masks when going out.”
The smog in Harbin came as it activated its public heating system before the icy winter, state media said.
It is China’s latest major pollution-related episode.
The issue causes significant public anger and several Chinese newspapers carried images from Harbin on their front pages Tuesday.
In January thick smog blanketed Beijing – with similar PM2.5 levels to Harbin this week – garnering headlines, as well as a nickname “airpocalypse”, in news reports around the globe.
At the time Harbin escaped the worst of the pollution, but huge areas of northern China have been shrouded by smog at various times this year.
Pollution from rapid development and heavy coal use plagues wide swathes of China, prompting public criticism and pledges from the country’s leadership to make improvements.
Last Friday American jazz singer Patti Austin cancelled a scheduled concert at the Forbidden City Concert Hall in Beijing due to a “severe asthma attack” after arriving in the notoriously smog-ridden capital, according to a statement on her website.
The city government in Beijing said on Tuesday that it is preparing emergency measures such as factory shutdowns and traffic limits to kick in when air pollution levels in the capital are especially heavy.
Officials said the strictest emergency measures will take effect when the pollution index for PM2.5 is forecast to exceed 300 microgrammes per cubic metre for three days running.
Private vehicles will be allowed to operate only on alternating days, depending on the last number of their licence plates. Factory emissions will be cut 30 percent by suspending or limiting production, and construction sites must halt excavation and demolition work. Classes will be suspended, a measure likely to cause inconvenience in a city where most parents both work.
Fang Li, vice director of the city’s Environmental Protection Bureau, acknowledged that the measures would not prevent smog wafting into Beijng from neighbouring provinces such as Heibei. As much as 60 per cent of the capital’s air pollution is said to come from outside sources.
“We have no control over Hebei, but this is a national priority and we hope we can be a positive role model,” the official told reporters.