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Beijing Issues Highest Possible Alert Over Poisonous Smog for the First Time Ever

Dangerous levels of air pollution prompted the city's government to halt outdoor construction and urge schools to close. Authorities told people to stay indoors and implemented traffic restrictions to reduce the number of cars on the road.
Photo par How Hwee Young/EPA

The pollution in Beijing has gotten so bad that on Monday the city's government issued its first "red alert" about the poor air quality and warned that the city would be shrouded in heavy smog until Thursday.

In an online statement, the government ordered all outdoor construction work to stop, urged schools to close, and told people to stay indoors. The notice, which follows days of heavy smog last week, also puts traffic restrictions on certain types of vehicles in the city of 22.5 million people.


"Construction waste, excavation transport vehicles, cement trucks, gravel transport vehicles, and other large-scale vehicles are prohibited from driving on roads," authorities said.

Buildings are pictured amid haze in Beijing on December 7. (Photo by Jason Lee/Reuters)

Today's warning was an upgrade from an orange alert issued over the weekend, but Beijing residents criticized authorities online for not issuing a red alert sooner when the smog reached dangerous levels last week.

Environmental Protection Minister Chen Jining on Sunday vowed to punish agencies and officials for any failure to quickly implement a pollution emergency response plan, the state-owned Global Times tabloid reported. His ministry also said that it is sending teams of inspectors to various areas of the country to make sure that they are complying with emergency measures and environmental regulations.

Related: China's Toxic Soil, Air Pollution, and Dead Animals Prompt Environmental Reform

Images from over the past week show China's capital city dark from the pollution in the middle of the day.

Lunchtime view from the Beijing bureau, with sun almost wholly blotted out — Te-Ping Chen (@tepingchen)December 1, 2015

Zero visibility, zero breathability: this is what its like driving through Beijing at 12 pm, pm2.5 near 600 — Jonah Kessel (@jonah_kessel)December 1, 2015

Under the dome for another day. — Katie Stallard (@skystallard)December 1, 2015

Photo by How Hwee Young/EPA

China's leadership has vowed to crack down on environmental degradation, including the air pollution that blankets many major cities, following decades of unbridled economic growth. Air pollution is responsible for killing as many as 1.6 million Chinese people per year, according to a study by Berkeley Earth — a rate of roughly 4,400 people a day. China Daily, a state-run newspaper, recently reported that lung cancer diagnoses in the country could climb up to more than 800,000 a year by 2020.

Chinese researchers have said that the dangerous levels smog is becoming a point of unrest for the country's 1.3 billion citizens.

The looming smog underscores the challenge facing the government as it battles pollution caused by the coal-burning power industry, and will raise questions at the United Nations climate summit underway in Paris about its ability to clean up its economy and environment.