Air quality worsened in China's capital and surrounding regions on Thursday, as the country's new leaders geared up for a major congress where public anger has likely pushed pollution onto the agenda.
Particularly bad bouts of dirty air in recent weeks and unprecedented coverage of the pollution by state media are focusing attention on the issue ahead of two meetings next week that mark the highlight of the Chinese political calendar and lay out priorities for the rest of the year.
While the agenda is usually something of a mystery ahead of the National People's Congress, China's rubber-stamp legislature, and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, an advisory body, experts think it will be hard for delegates to ignore the issue of pollution.
Recent cases of particularly bad air pollution affecting a large area of China and water pollution have "aroused so much public attention," said Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs. "I would expect the delegates and the congress delegates to respond to it. In response they should not just discuss it, they should also try to look for solutions."
Peng Xizhe, dean of the School of Social Development and Public Policy of Fudan University in Shanghai, said he expected NPC delegates to present "many proposals" on how to prevent pollution and the newly elected government to announce a new plan to deal with environmental pollution after the congress.
According to the National Meteorological Center of China, sandstorms were seen Thursday in Inner Mongolia and other northern provinces, and thick smog and thick fog descended on northern and eastern provinces. Flights were delayed in affected cities, including Tianjin, central Wuhan and Qingdao on the east coast. Highways were closed in Tianjin and Hebei province.
On Thursday morning, Beijing's environmental monitoring center recorded readings of PM2.5 — a secondary pollutant that forms in the air and is tiny enough to enter deep into the lungs — above 400 micrograms per cubic meter, which it terms "severely polluted," and advised residents to limit their time outdoors.
An hourly reading from the U.S. Embassy, which also monitors air quality from a device on its rooftop, went beyond index. Its PM2.5 reading was 510 micrograms per cubic meter, which corresponds to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Air Quality Index reading of 506. Anything above 301 is considered hazardous, and the scale stops at 500.
While burning of coal for power plants is a major source of air pollution across China, vehicle emissions are a big source of PM2.5 in dense cities.
PM2.5 is a buzzword well-known and used by China's urban middle class, but science officials have decided they need a new Chinese word for the tiny particles.
"We believe that all terms and abbreviations in English should have a Chinese name for the convenience of the academic research and media reports," said Wang Xiaohui, an editor with the National Committee for Terms in Sciences and Technology.
The committee held a seminar Wednesday to discuss possibilities. Suggestions online and in media reports include the Chinese words for "lung-entering particle" and "fine particle," Wang said.
"Based on the discussions and suggestions provided by experts during the symposium, we will come up with an official Chinese name for PM2.5 in about a week because there's a lot of public attention on this matter," he said.
Online, some people commented that it would be more useful to focus on how to manage air pollution.
"People are already familiar with the name PM2.5, do you think it's necessary to change it? And a good sounding name would solve the problem?" computer programmer Li Min wrote on his Twitter-like Sina Weibo account.
Associated Press researchers Yu Bing and Flora Ji contributed to this report.