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China's overheated economy may be slowing but its capital is still bearing the brunt of extreme air pollution, an increasingly costly byproduct of the country's rapid industrialization.

Beijing's intense pollution – a noxious soup that on its worst days obscures buildings just a few blocks apart – sparks road closings, flight cancellations and delays, and spikes in visits to hospital emergency rooms.

Workdays are lost because of employee health woes; illnesses are triggered and worsened by the fine particulate matter in the air, so tiny it can permeate organs and enter the bloodstream, contributing to heart attacks, bronchitis, asthma and other chronic diseases.

Pollution costs China, the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, hundreds of millions – perhaps billions – of yuan annually. It also threatens the ability of the world's second-largest economy to evolve into a fully developed, first world country from its current industrializing state.

"There's no way they can grow to high income levels with the levels of pollution they have," said Carter Brandon, environmental co-ordinator for the World Bank in Beijing.

The World Bank estimates that, in 2009, the effects of air pollution were equivalent to about 3.3 per cent of China's gross domestic product. The impact on health alone, including premature deaths, amounted to about 700 billion yuan ($110.2-billion U.S.) in 2009.

At issue is pollution in the form of tiny particulate matter, known as PM2.5, generated by coal burning and vehicle exhaust.

China actually has more high-efficiency coal-burning plants than the United States, experts say, but 70 per cent of Chinese energy needs are still met by coal. Its coal consumption of 3.24 billion tons in 2010 was three times that of the United States and six times that of India.

And although China's cars are generally smaller, newer and less polluting, the problem is there are just so many of them.

Beijing also bears the brunt of pollution from factories in distant provinces, as winds pick up emissions and deposit them in the Beijing basin, where temperature inversions may keep them trapped for days.

PM2.5 is not generally measured by Chinese monitoring devices and, when it is, the results are not released publicly. But the U.S. embassy in Beijing measures and posts, via Twitter, its findings on PM2.5 nearly every hour. It uses a U.S. scale in which less than 100 is considered good to moderate, 200 to 300 is unhealthy and warrants a health alert, and anything above 300 is hazardous.

The embassy's equipment recorded "very unhealthy" or "hazardous" levels of PM2.5 on nine of the first 15 days in December. In comparison, the worst-polluted area of the United States in terms of particulate matter, Bakersfield-Delano, Calif., had just two days of "very unhealthy" levels in all of 2010, according to the American Lung Association.

On Dec. 4, during a particularly bad two-week stretch in Beijing when cloud cover and a lack of wind trapped pollutants, the embassy monitor hit "beyond index" – more than 500. Along with a big jump in hospital cases, more than 200 flights out of Beijing Capital International Airport were cancelled, and dozens more were delayed, stranding thousands of passengers. And at least eight highways were closed in 21 different sections; the Beijing Capital Highway Development Corp. offered food and hot water to drivers who were stuck.

"It's been really serious this winter," said Pan Xiaochuan, vice-director of environmental health in the Beijing University's School of Public Health. "The environmental protection agency in Beijing has [been] more concerned about it. … It's caused by industry and automobile exhaust."

Government should bring in stricter measures to control vehicle exhaust, Mr. Pan said, and citizens should walk more and use public transit.

Beijing has taken drastic actions in the past to combat the debilitating smog. When it was faced with a pollution emergency before the 2008 Olympics, the heaviest polluting factories were moved, others were temporarily closed, and new driving restrictions went into force, all of which – combined with benevolent winds – left the city with days of remarkably blue skies.

The driving restrictions, under which every car in Beijing is prevented from driving one day a week based on its licence plate number, have continued with public support. The government also now limits the number of new licence plates issued each year, using a lottery system.

But Beijing is doubly cursed when it comes to pollution, first, because of the sheer pace of its growth, and secondly because of climate patterns.

"Passive weather conditions – such as calm wind, temperature inversion, and low air pressure – will mean it is difficult for accumulated pollutants to diffuse," Du Shaozhong, deputy bureau chief of Beijing's environmental protection bureau, wrote in online commentary earlier this fall. "We have no other better measures but these: one, to take measures to reduce the emissions; second, to remind people to be careful."

China does say that combatting pollution is a priority: Investing in clean technology is high in the 12th "Five-Year Plan," which guides development. The government has pledged to make all its coal-fired power plants retrofitted to new, strict emissions standards by mid-2013. And cities across the country are working to learn more about measuring and reducing pollution caused by fine particulate matter.

A global economic slowdown might even give China an edge in slowing its pollution problems – although the World Bank warns that this is not necessarily a good thing.

"An economic slowdown generally is good for the environment. We saw reduced carbon emissions worldwide in the last economic crisis. … But that doesn't make it desirable," said the bank's Mr. Brandon, who wants China to be among the first to adopt cleaner technologies and become the world standard-bearer. "It's easier to do it if you're growing than if you're stagnant."

Special to The Globe and Mail