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Most Chinese Cities Fail Minimum Air Quality Standards, Study Says

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Only three of the 74 Chinese cities monitored by the central government managed to meet official minimum standards for air quality last year, the Ministry of Environmental Protection announced this week, underscoring the country’s severe pollution problems.

The dirtiest cities were in northern China, where coal-powered industries are concentrated, including electricity generation and steel manufacturing. The ministry said in its announcement, posted on its website on Tuesday, that in the broad northern region that includes the large cities of Beijing and Tianjin as well as the province of Hebei, which surrounds Beijing, the air quality standards were met on only 37 percent of days last year. Beijing, with 20 million people, did so on only 48 percent of days, the ministry said.

The three cities that met the standards were Haikou, Zhoushan and Lhasa.

The report underscored the immense challenges facing ordinary Chinese as they try to pressure Communist Party leaders to change growth policies and enforce regulations that would lead to cleaner air.

Awareness of toxic air has risen sharply since January 2013, when a stretch of severe pollution in northern China nicknamed the “airpocalypse” resulted in widespread outrage and forced propaganda officials to allow the Chinese news media to report on the problem.

Some leaders acknowledge the issue — Prime Minister Li Keqiang announced this month that China would “declare war against pollution” — but environmental scholars say it will be at least five years or even a decade before there is any notable improvement in the air.

On Wednesday and Thursday, the air monitor at the United States Embassy in Beijing rated the air as “hazardous,” which meant people should avoid all outdoor activity. Many cities across northern and eastern China also had poor ratings this week, as shown by figures from local monitoring equipment.

Many tourists are deciding not to visit China because of the reports of pollution. This week, Samuel L. Jackson, the American actor, has been writing to his 3.4 million Twitter followers about the air in Beijing, where he is promoting a new film, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.”

“Even w/ lights, you can only see 2 1/2 blocks ...maybe! AQ 312!!” he wrote in one message, referring to an air-quality reading that by American standards falls in the hazardous range. Earlier, he wrote: “Landing in Beijing, Air Quality 216 VERY UNHEALTHY!! Oh well....” And another post said, “7:30 AM AQ still jacked!”

Foreign workers in Beijing are also becoming much less willing to tolerate the toxic air. That was reflected in an annual survey released on March 19 by the American Chamber of Commerce in China. Almost half of the 365 companies in the survey, most of them in the Beijing area, said they had problems recruiting or retaining senior executives because of the poor air. That figure was only 19 percent in the chamber’s 2008 survey.

As a result, some companies are now offering bonuses or higher salaries to fill openings in China, which foreign workers are calling pollution pay — and a few are even announcing the policy publicly, as Panasonic, the electronics maker, did in mid-March.

On Tuesday, the World Health Organization announced that air pollution, both indoors and outdoors, contributed to seven million deaths worldwide in 2012. More than one-third of those occurred in fast-developing nations in Asia, including China and India. In both those countries, nearly the entire population is exposed to fine particles in the air known as PM 2.5, which can penetrate deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream, researchers reported on Wednesday in an article posted on Scientific American’s website. They wrote that a recent global environmental index showed that China and India ranked worst in terms of populations affected by poor air.



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