Kids Get ‘Smog Day’ As Pollution Shuts Down Chinese City

Choking pollution measured at 40 times what the WHO says is safe

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Kyodo News / AP

A woman wearing a mask walk through a street covered by dense smog in Harbin, northern China, Oct. 21, 2013.

Winter is coming, that’s for sure. The northeastern city of Harbin today ushered in the season with smog so thick that visibility was reportedly limited to 10 meters in places. Classes were canceled, roads closed, and planes grounded.

State media said the PM 2.5 reading (which measures the level of harmful particulate matter in the air) “exceeded” 500. A Reuters report put the figure at 1000, or 40 times higher than what the World Health Organization deems safe. Photographs from the city show air so murky it would be easy to mistake Monday morning for deep, dark night.

The shutdown in Harbin is sure to worry residents of northern China as the region heads into what promises to be another long, dirty winter. China’s northeast is plagued year-round by air pollution, the result of factory emissions and massive growth in the number of vehicles on the road. Things get worse, however, when the heaters crank up, increasing the amount of coal that gets burned. Harbin’s current smog comes the day after the city turned on its heaters.

MORE: The 10 Most Polluted Cities in the World

It’s not the first time bad air has brought a Chinese city to a halt. Last year, Beijing was gripped by a weeks-long airpocalypse that sent families scrambling for cover and bolstered sales of face masks and air-purifiers. By choking the nation’s capital in its embrace, that haze helped put pollution on the national agenda, with officials finally recognizing, and promising to address, the problem.

But there’s no easy fix. In September, Beijing unveiled a new blueprint for improving the air by 2017. China will need to spend nearly 5 trillion yuan, or $817 billion to fight pollution, said a spokesman for the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Environmental Protection, with $163 billion of that spent in the capital alone. Last week, as the air turned cold and the pollution spiked, officials announced a set of color-coded emergency measures for bad pollution days. A red alert for toxic air? Sure, that could work. If you can see it through the smog.

MORE: Spring Sandstorms Add to China’s Bad Air Misery

Wearing face masks to combat air pollution has become so common in Chinese cities, one designer is working to make the utilitarian accessory into a fashion statement: