China’s Eastern Coast Blanketed in Toxic Haze

Pollution spreads to southeast of country that normally remains largely unaffected

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A woman stands at The Bund on Dec. 5, 2013 in Shanghai, China

The airpocalypse continues.  The dense, polluted air that has become a fixture in China’s northeast has this week descended further south, shrouding a vast section of eastern China in a toxic haze. In Shanghai,  the city’s famous skyline was barely visible behind the ashen blanket. In nearby Nanjing, the government ordered school closures in order to keep children indoors.  A bit further up the coast, in parts of Shandong province, pollution levels Thursday were literally off the chart.

(PHOTOSatellite Photos Show the Appalling Extent of China’s Air Pollution)

China is no stranger to extreme air pollution, but this type of city-shuttering smog is more common in northeastern China, where coal consumption peaks during the cold winter months, darkening skies. Since the 1950s the government has provided free heating to those living north of the Huai river. A recent study found that air pollution from coal combustion likely cuts an average of 5.5 years from the lives of northerners compared to those in the south.

Last winter, Beijing spend several cold, dark weeks under a filthy haze, sending sales of air purifiers soaring. This year’s pollution season hit China’s northeast first, with bad air essentially shutting down the city of Harbin in late October. The air was so thick that visibility was reduced to 10 meters in some places. Schools were closed and planes grounded as traffic snarled to a halt.

After years of denying or downplaying the problem the government has finally vowed action-. In September, Beijing unveiled a new blueprint that promises 5 trillion yuan, or $817 billion, to improve air quality by 2017. They also introduced a color-coded emergency system that details certain measures (curbs on cars, for instance) according to the level of pollution.

Judging by the look of eastern China this week, those measures, while welcome, are far from enough.

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