Beijing has a population of 21.5 million — that’s more than New York, Paris, and London combined. For the next few days, the government is encouraging every last one of them to stay indoors. Flights have been cancelled and students are discouraged from going to school. If people have to venture outdoors, then scarves and masked are encouraged.

A dust storm has swept into the city from the north, making their already heavily polluted air hazardous to breath.

The World Health Organization says that 25 particles per cubic meter of air is the maximum safe level for breathing.

Beijing currently has 500 particles per cubic meter of air, according to Beijing’s environmental agency, putting the city’s air quality at the highest possible danger level charted by the agency.

Read More: 90% of People Breathe Dangerous Air, WHO Reports

Beijing is no stranger to air pollution. Since 2015, the government has announced a level of 500 multiple times and citizens are regularly up in arms over the perceived lack of action.

Like other cities with high air pollution, Beijing sits in a valley, surrounded by mountains. If wind doesn’t push the air around, then pollution accumulates and just sits there.

This happens so often that the city is essentially the global reference point for air pollution.

Generally, its air pollution comes from coal and other industrial emissions, events that can be controlled and reduced over time.

Read More: Why Cities May Be the Key to Stopping Climate Change

This time, however, the barrage of dust is setting an ominous precedent.

As China’s cities expand, its deserts are growing as well, making life-halting dust storms like this more likely to happen in the future.  

And it’s not like these horizon-erasing events are just economically inconvenient — they’re primarily dangerous to human health.

Throughout the world, 6.5 million deaths each year can be linked to air pollution, making it the fourth-biggest threat to human health after a poor diet, smoking, and high blood pressure. Air pollution is recognized as the world’s worst environmental carcinogen, and it’s considered more dangerous than second-hand smoke.

In the past, Chinese authorities refused to acknowledge the severity of air pollution. Now, they are trying to find solutions by investing more in renewable energy and promoting wildlife growth in some regions.

Read More: 90% of People Breathe Dangerous Air, WHO Reports

These efforts might prove too little too late. In the meantime, the tens of millions of people living in Beijing will continue to buy expensive air filters for their homes and tie scarves and masks around their faces whenever they go outside.

As one user on the social media platform Sina Weibo said:

"I've got used to smog, time to try something new. If I have to choose one to live in, between sandstorm and smog, I prefer the former.”


Defend the Planet

Beijing’s Latest Air Pollution Crisis Isn’t From Coal

By Joe McCarthy