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China on red alert over pollution

China on red alert over pollution
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A 40-car pile-up on a Chinese motorway, caused in part by bad visibility in the smog pointed to growing political strain. It was one of the consequences of the country’s alarming pollution.

On top of this, at least 20 flights into or out of Beijing airport were cancelled this Thursday morning alone, or delayed, as China’s bad air continued to break new records. The capital has seen no lasting relief in January.

The Communist government is finding it harder to ignore people’s mounting protests.

The media are beginning to talk about it more openly, after warnings to avoid going outside, and telling Beijingers to wear masks if they do.

This week, a small particles air index maintained by the US Embassy reached 517. The World Health Organisation recommends a daily level of no more than 20. There’s public outrage.

One elderly resident spoke for many, complaining: “It’s impossible to stay at home all the time, the air is so bad with the smog outside. If you open the window for long, the inside air gets even worse. We don’t know how to solve this. People can’t do anything.”

The authorities on Tuesday temporarily took one third of government vehicles off the roads. But some 20 million people live in the capital; it has five million vehicles in circulation, a number which has been increasing each year by 250,000.

Industry is the next main polluter. Largely in power stations, China burns as much coal in a year as the rest of the planet put together. Beijing also shut down more than 100 heavily polluting factories this week, but only for two days.

Hospital admissions for breathing trouble have risen 20 percent. Doctors said half of those admitted to a children’s hospital in the city were suffering from respiratory infections.

One waiting mother said: “I’m worried. My child has a skin allergy. She used to have symptoms only very rarely, but the doctor said that with the recent air quality getting worse, there are more and more patients suffering from this condition.”

A World Bank study in 2007 put the number of premature deaths because of pollution at 750,000 per year. Other sources say it’s now more than two million, and that the incidence of lung cancer has soared by 60 percent in the last decade.

According to state television, Premier Wen Jiabao has told other top leaders: “We should speed up enhancing our industry, push for energy conservation and build an ecological civilisation.”