BEIJING (AFP) — Pollution levels in Beijing hit the top of the scale on Tuesday, just 73 days before the Olympics, prompting a government warning for residents with respiratory problems to stay indoors.
"Sensitive individuals should avoid going out of doors," the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau said on its website, announcing that air quality was at "hazardous" level five, the worst possible grade.
The main pollutant was suspended particulate matter, which is usually attributed to coal burning and vehicle exhausts.
But the bureau said experts this time blamed poor air quality on annual springtime sandstorms in Mongolia and China's region of Inner Mongolia that had blown thousands of tonnes of dust over the Chinese capital.
"This is the fourth storm of the season and air pollution levels were each time about the same, but this time the effect lasted longer," said an official at the bureau who asked not to be named.
Pollution was thickest during the early morning hours but had begun to dissipate after about midday, he said.
Beijing's air quality is routinely rated among the worst in the world by international agencies such as the United Nations and the World Bank, with the rising number of cars, industrial pollution and dust storms among the culprits.
China says it has spent 16 billion dollars over the past decade on improving the environment and air quality by shifting polluting factories out of the capital, raising car emissions standards and other measures.
Authorities have said the city last year achieved its goal of 245 "blue sky days", or days with only light pollution, compared with just 100 days in 1998.
However, Beijing's poor environment remains a major concern for the International Olympic Committee and some athletes.
IOC chief Jacques Rogge last year said that endurance events such as the marathon could be postponed or cancelled to protect competitors' health during the August 8-24 Games.
Hoping to avoid that embarrassment, Beijing plans to ban around half the city's three-million-plus cars from the roads during the Games, while some factories will be closed down and construction work ordered to halt.
Surrounding cities and provinces will also join in the anti-pollution fight by taking similar measures.
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