China's capital region was swathed Monday in a cloud of choking smog, prompting a rise in hospital visits, sales of indoor air purifiers and reports of rare industry shutdowns.
China's Ministry of Environmental Protection on Sunday dispatched inspection teams to fine and shut down polluting industries in the region.
But the shutdowns did little to end a four-day bout of heavy particulate smog. Nor are they likely to ameliorate skepticism about China's commitment to environmental protection.
Alex Wang, who teaches law at the University of California at Los Angeles, said China has extensive environmental laws. "The problem is not a lack of knowledge about pollution sources," said Wang, who previously headed the Beijing office of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Rather, the problem is that environmental regulators lack sufficient authority to deter polluters."
The biggest sources of Beijing's pollution are thought to be industries, smelters and utilities outside the city powered by coal.
On Beijing's worst days, the smell of coal soot hangs heavy in the air. At 6 p.m. Monday, the air monitor at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing reported that levels of so-called PM 2.5 contaminants — fine particles produced by coal burning that pose the worst risk to human health — had topped 400 micrograms per cubic meter. That's about 16 times higher than what the World Health Organization deems safe.
On the street Monday, pedestrians outfitted in masks were far more visible than the week before, although a large number -—mainly men — wore no protection and could be seen enjoying the outdoors by smoking.