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Beijing's smog problem is even worse than you think

Cyclists wearing masks ride in heavy smog on Dec. 7, 2015, in Suzhou, China.
ChinaFotoPress | Getty Images
Cyclists wearing masks ride in heavy smog on Dec. 7, 2015, in Suzhou, China.

Smog is shutting Beijing down.

Beijing's government on Monday shut down schools and restricted road travel until at least Thursday to protect its 21 million people from the harmful effects of air pollution, according to a statement from the city that was reported in Reuters.

Unusually humid weather has worsened the effects of the pollution in the city, making the air hard to breathe and lowering visibility.

A woman wearing a mask practices Rollerblading at Olympic Park amid heavy smog on Dec. 1, 2015, in Beijing.
Getty Images
A woman wearing a mask practices Rollerblading at Olympic Park amid heavy smog on Dec. 1, 2015, in Beijing.

Beijing's road restrictions apply to several types of large vehicles, such as construction equipment, and cars with odd-numbered license plates, among others, Reuters reported. The restrictions also mean that school classes are canceled, that employers should offer flexible working hours, and "large-scale outdoor activities should be stopped."

Meanwhile, the country is one of almost 200 countries with delegates in Paris now negotiating agreements on capping carbon emissions to mitigate the effects of climate change.

While carbon emissions are perhaps more frequently discussed in connection with climate change, the polluted air in China's major cities is a visible reminder of the country's reliance on fossil fuels for its rapid economic expansion over the last few decades.

Coal is the highest carbon emitter among commonly used fossil fuels, and about two-thirds of China's overall energy comes from coal burning, according to the Energy Information Administration. Recently, one study determined that China's coal consumption was about 17 percent higher than researchers had previously believed.

And coal is not going away any time soon, despite an announcement this month that the Chinese government plans to cut emissions by more than half by 2020. The growth in coal burning has flat-lined, according to the EIA, but China will continue to burn fossil fuels and will likely have to deal with some of the effects of the increased carbon pollution coming from neighboring India, which is expected to ramp up its use of coal to meet its own power needs.

But the rising use of automobiles among prosperous Chinese is has also contributed significantly to pollution in cities.

Policemen wear protective masks behind a paramilitary soldier at the Tiananmen Square on an extremely polluted day in Beijing, Dec. 1, 2015.
Damir Sagolj | Reuters
Policemen wear protective masks behind a paramilitary soldier at the Tiananmen Square on an extremely polluted day in Beijing, Dec. 1, 2015.

The most recent reading of the Beijing air quality index maintained by the U.S. Embassy in Beijing was last measured at 346 on the Environmental Protection Agency's scale. Anything above 100 is considered unsafe for sensitive groups, such as children, the elderly, or people with respiratory problems. Anything above 150 is "unhealthy," above 200 is "very unhealthy," and above 300 is "hazardous."

Effects of going out in that kind of smog include "serious aggravation of heart or lung disease and premature mortality in persons with cardiopulmonary disease and the elderly; serious risk of respiratory effects in general population."

The scale measures the presence of something referred to as PM 2.5 — airborne particles up to 2.5 micrometers. These are considered particularly dangerous, because they can enter the lungs and make their way into the bloodstream.

Buildings of the Lujiazui Financial District are shrouded in smog on Nov. 30, 2015, in Shanghai.
China Foto Press | Getty Images
Buildings of the Lujiazui Financial District are shrouded in smog on Nov. 30, 2015, in Shanghai.

By comparison, the worst levels of recorded air pollution in the United States — currently to be found in Portola, California — stand at 146. That's still a worrying level, but it's less than half of Beijing's level, according to AirNow.gov.

People in Beijing have been living with the smog for years — the city enacted a plan to cut emissions before the 2008 Summer Olympics, and athletes from visiting countries were asking their trainers if they should do things like run behind buses to prepare themselves for the pollution.

A study recently suggested that babies born around the time of 2008's emissions cuts were heavier than babies born in 2007 and 2009, suggesting the pollution declines had measurable impacts on health.

Another study from 2013 estimated that 1.2 million Chinese people died prematurely from air pollution in 2010 alone, about 40 percent of the global total for that year.

The pollution has also created somewhat unexpected new businesses — 3M face masks are top sellers in the country among those trying to filter out the air when outside.

The government put the "red alert" system in place in 2013, though this is the first time the government has issued one.

It also appears that people are already flouting it.

One worker told The New York Times, "There is no other way for me to go to work besides driving."