BEIJING, Jan. 14 (Xinhua) -- Choked in dense smog for three consecutive days, Beijing started emergency response measures on Sunday to curb the hazardous air pollution.
Yet more efforts are needed to control pollution in the long run both in Beijing and other Chinese cities, where the air has held excessive levels of major pollutants in the past few days.
Monitoring data showed the Air Quality Index in most parts of the capital reached 500, the maximum level of pollution, on Sunday morning.
By 2 p.m. Sunday, readings for PM2.5, or airborne particles measuring less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, had dropped slightly to 300-400 micrograms per cubic meter of air at many monitoring sites in Beijing, but remained 600 to 700 at several sites in the city's southeast, according to environmental authorities.
"Such prolonged pollution is rare in Beijing," said a university student who only gave his surname, Wang. He wore a mask to "avoid pollution and flu infection."
The 22-year-old student, who has been living in Beijing since childhood, told Xinhua he expected the government to take more timely and effective actions, such as the dissemination of air pollution information and the suspension of classes for children, who are vulnerable to diseases.
Doctors with Beijing Chaoyang Hospital and Beijing Children's Hospital said the number of patients experiencing respiratory problems had jumped sharply in the past few days.
Emergency response measures were adopted on Sunday in some areas to deal with the heavy pollution, a senior official with the Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau said.
Outdoor sports activities for primary and middle schools were ordered to be halted from Sunday to Tuesday in extremely polluted areas, including Tongzhou, Miyun, Daxing, Mentougou and Fangshan districts, according to the municipal authorities.
Work was suspended at 28 construction sites and 54 businesses reduced their emissions by 30 percent, with Beijing Hyundai Motor Company halting production on Sunday, the Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau said.
Fourteen inspection teams were dispatched to 14 districts and counties to oversee the pollution-reduction measures on Sunday, the bureau added.
Since Jan. 1, real-time air quality monitoring data on PM2.5 intensity in China's 74 major cities, including Beijing, has been available for citizens, a move undertaken at the request of the public.
The PM2.5 index is considered stricter than the PM10 standard previously adopted in China. The smaller particles it measures are more harmful to people's heath.
PM2.5 readings have been exceeding safe levels recently at more than half of the monitoring sites in Beijing and its neighboring Tianjin Municipality and Hebei Province, according to the China National Environmental Monitoring Center.
Meteorological experts with the country's National Meteorological Station said relatively high humidity, low winds and a lack of cold fronts had contributed to the recent foggy weather in many parts of China.
"But the fog holds no pollution itself. The problem is the discharge of a huge amount of pollutants into the air each day," said Yu Jianhua, an official with the Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau.
Beijing has a permanent population of around 20 million and some 5.2 million vehicles, with the number of private cars on the rise.
Like many other built-up areas, the growth of its economy, population and energy demands has brought more pressure to its pollution control.
Pollutants, some of which came from vehicle exhausts, have gradually accumulated in recent windless days in Beijing which is bordered by mountains to the north and west, Yu said.
Zhu Tong, an expert on environmental studies at Peking University, said no obvious improvement could be felt after one or two measures due to the accumulated pollutants in such large-scale smoggy weather.
"The heavy air pollution emergency response plan, which Beijing promulgated at the end of 2012, must be implemented strictly and in a timely way," Zhu added. "If the implementation is too late, the effects would be weakened."
The response plan stipulates measures based on the degree of pollution. For example, if the pollution reaches the worst level, earth and stone-related construction projects should be suspended and major polluting chemical companies should reduce their emissions by 30 percent via cutting production.
Meanwhile, environmental protection awareness must start with everyone taking concrete action to reduce pollution, experts believe.
"People should choose more public transport. Drivers should cut their engines after parking," said Zhu. "We should draw a lesson from the serious, lasting pollution."
China has invested heavily in reducing polluting emissions in recent years. It pledged in its 12th Five-Year Plan to cut energy consumption per unit of GDP by 16 percent while slashing carbon emissions by 17 percent in the five years to 2015.
"Adjusting industrial and energy structures is a must," said Wang Jinnan, chief engineer with the Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning.
"We need to realize the long and complicated process of PM2.5 treatment."
Beijing is aiming to cut emissions of major pollutants including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and ammonia nitrogen, by 2 percent from levels recorded last year.