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Surviving Beijing's first ever red alert for air pollution

Schools closed Tuesday in the Chinese capital as authorities issued their first ever 'red alert' over high levels of particles in the air.

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A woman uses a scarf and others wear masks to cover their face from pollutants as they walk along a street on a polluted day in Beijing, Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2015. Schools closed and rush-hour roads were much quieter than normal as Beijing’s first-ever red alert for smog took effect Tuesday, closing many factories and invoking restrictions to keep half the city’s vehicles off the roads.

Andy Wong/AP

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Well, I have survived Beijing’s first ever pollution “red alert” day, and frankly, after several years of inhaling noxious smog, I am wondering what all the fuss is about. 

The fuss, of course, is about the amount of dangerous tiny particles of pollution in the air known as PM2.5 that go straight into the bloodstream, and outdoor readings have been hovering at around 300 most of the day – 12 times the World Health Organization’s safety limit.

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What is even more alarming, though, is that a week ago – when the PM2.5 readings were an astonishing three times higher than that, the air was yellow and I could hardly see across the freeway outside my window – the authorities did not declare a red alert.  No, it was an orange alert, which meant that Beijing’s schools stayed open, unlike today. 

A red alert would have been disruptive; and on the first day of the COP21 climate change talks in Paris it would have been embarrassing. Nobody seemed to care about the children forced to go to school despite the appalling air quality.

Social media in China exploded with anger. The Ministry of Environmental Protection publicly rapped Beijing’s knuckles. On Monday evening, as forecasters warned of more than three straight days of PM2.5 levels above 200, the city fathers finally declared a red alert, closing schools, taking half the capital’s vehicles off the roads, shutting down construction sites and closing some factories.

They were only facing reality, and it was hard to ignore. When I poked my head out of my bedroom window this morning the acrid smell of coal hit the back of my throat immediately. You can smell a bad air day here the moment you wake up. As the day progressed the thick grey haze that blanketed the city grew ever more impenetrable.

PM2.5 levels of 200 and above are by no means unusual in Beijing; we probably see that one day in five, depending on the season – winter months are the cruelest. I would not generally bother to wear a mask, unless I was riding my bike somewhere and breathing more deeply than normal.

But the red alert caught my attention today. I put my mask on just for the quick walk to the office. Some foreign correspondent colleagues were also jolted into unusual action – they let their staff work at home, which nobody had proposed a week ago when the pollution levels were much, much worse.

The red alert also prompted me to write this article, sending me on a search for new information that I have not included in any of the other stories I have written about pollution since I moved here nine years ago. I found one new scientific report from the Max Planck Institute suggesting earlier this year that 1.4 million people die prematurely in China every year from the effects of air pollution.

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I’ll keep that mask on, I think. Or hold my breath for the next three days.