[Research has pointed to the growing risk of mortality from outdoor air pollution in China and elsewhere around the world, though numbers vary. In China, studies have estimated about a million premature deaths a year from outdoor air pollution.]
By Didi Kirsten Tatlow
A woman wore a mask against air pollution in Beijing on Monday.
Kevin Frayer/Getty Images
BEIJING — Is smog a natural disaster? Beijing officials appear to think so.
They have listed it on an official website of weather calamities, alongside the spring sandstorms and summer rainstorms that sweep the capital, wedged between mountains bordering the Gobi Desert and the North China Plain.
But with officials poised to legally classify smog as a natural disaster by including it in the Beijing Municipal Meteorological Disaster Prevention Statute, not everyone is happy.
The concept of smog as a meteorological disaster is “controversial,” read the headline of an analysis in The Beijing News on Thursday.
There is precedent in China for ascribing manufactured disasters to nature. The famine precipitated by the 1958-61 Great Leap Forward, Mao Zedong’s campaign to collectivize agriculture and quickly expand industry, which killed tens of millions of people, is known in China as the Three Years of Natural Disasters.
Beijing is still reeling from a grimy November, and public anger over smog is running high. Some are concerned that classifying the murky air as a natural disaster will reduce pressure on officials to fix the problem, The Beijing News said.
Levels of fine particulate air pollution, known as PM2.5, soared to a monthly average of 100 micrograms per cubic meter in November, according to Luo Yi, head of the Ministry of Environmental Protection’s environmental monitoring bureau, a ministry statement said on Tuesday. PM2.5 particles are smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, and they can enter deep into the lungs and even into the bloodstream.
Across the so-called Jingjinji region — which is home to 130 million people and includes Beijing, the surrounding province of Hebei and the port city of Tianjin — the average PM2.5 level in November was 102 micrograms per cubic meter, Mr. Luo said.
According to the World Health Organization, which has stricter guidelines than most countries, yearly averages of PM2.5 levels should not exceed 10 micrograms per cubic meter.
The Chinese government says an annual average PM2.5 level of 35 micrograms per cubic meter is acceptable. In its 13th Five-Year Plan, which began this year, the government has pledged to reduce levels by 18 percent by 2020 in places that do not meet that standard.
Pushing back against the smog-as-natural-disaster argument, the analysis in The Beijing News said: “Human activity is the root of the problem, by releasing large amounts of pollution. The root of smog is pollution. There are essential differences to natural disasters.”
“Experts say it could let polluters off the legal hook,” the newspaper added, without naming the experts, perhaps reflecting political sensitivities surrounding pollution despite the government’s increasingly open acceptance of the problem.
Last weekend, in the southwestern city of Chengdu in Sichuan Province, the police moved quickly to break up a small, antipollution protest by artists wearing face masks.
And recently, health officials warned the Chinese authors of a report that concluded that outdoor PM2.5 caused about 51,000 deaths in China from lung cancer in 2005 not to publicize their findings, said one of the authors, who asked not to be identified by name for fear of repercussions.
The revised classification of smog in Beijing could further restrain public discussion. According to People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, “serious consequences caused by mistakes in broadcasting about meteorological disasters will be punished. The draft prohibits organizations and individuals from publishing reports on meteorological disasters, punishable by fines.’’
Arguing in favor of smog as a natural disaster, Xu Xiangde, a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, told The Beijing News: “Smog develops from natural causes such as weather conditions, and human causes such as pollution.”
“The natural causes are the inside, the human causes are the outside, and they intermingle, causing heavy pollution,” Mr. Xu said.
The inclusion of smog in the meteorological disaster statute is not intended to let anyone off the hook, Li Xiaojuan, the deputy head of the legal committee of the Beijing Municipal People’s Congress, said in the Beijing News report. Rather, it would enable the city to access disaster relief resources and better coordinate emergency responses. Tianjin and Hebei Province already list smog as a natural disaster.
Research has pointed to the growing risk of mortality from outdoor air pollution in China and elsewhere around the world, though numbers vary. In China, studies have estimated about a million premature deaths a year from outdoor air pollution.
There are few studies linking PM2.5 and lung cancer in China, though the problem is well documented in the United States, where scientists say it begins at far lower PM2.5 levels than those found in China or India, where air pollution is also a major problem.
On Thursday, the authorities issued a red pollution alert — the highest level — for Beijing, with heavy smog expected Friday through Wednesday.