People vulnerable to smog need better protection

2015-12-10 11:16China Daily Editor: Wang Fan

To win the war against air pollution, it is more than important for the Beijing municipal government to come up with necessary measures to minimize the exposure of local residents, especially the most vulnerable groups, to the dense smog that could compromise public health.

The first-ever red alert issued by Beijing against hazardous air pollution between Tuesday and Thursday will allow the capital to fight this long and hard battle with high hopes.

The move may seem belated to many who suffered the effects of the thick smog that engulfed the city about a week ago. But there is no denying that it accords fresh credibility to Beijing's resolution to tackle the problem head on.

Thanks to the highest-level alert, the odd-and-even license plate rule will keep almost half of the 5 million cars in the city off the roads and industrial production will be strictly restricted or stopped to reduce pollution during heavy smog. The inconvenience the move will cause residents and its impact on economic growth are obvious, but they are no longer good enough reason to stop the local authorities from taking severe measures to curb pollution.

Local officials have also asked kindergartens, and primary and high schools to suspend classes to reduce the exposure of more than 1 million children and adolescents to toxic air.

The short notice to close schools issued on Monday night caught many parents, especially working couples, by surprise, giving them little time to figure out how to take care of their children during the day. But they, too, know the importance of the serious official response to the emergency and realize that their children will be safer at home than while venturing out to go to school during a red alert.

It will take more time to figure out the consequences of smog and severe air pollution that is becoming a regular affair in Beijing and other parts of China especially during winter. But many studies have linked severe air pollution to some fatal diseases. A recent US study even suggested that air pollution is responsible for killing 1.6 million people in China every year, about one-sixth of all premature deaths in the country.

Many parents might be wondering why can't air-purifiers be installed in classrooms to protect students' health until Beijing and other parts of the country blaze a greener trail to sustain economic growth. But instead of meeting the rising demand of local parents for installing air-purifiers, for which some are ready to pay from their own pockets, the municipal education authorities have responded, at most, lukewarmly to the need of making classrooms pollution-free.

It doesn't take a health expert to fathom the effects of long-time exposure to toxic air on youngsters. But equipping tens of thousands of classrooms with air-purifiers to reduce indoor pollution will add to the fiscal burden of the Beijing municipal government. And even for Beijing, the additional expenditure of billions of yuan on education is difficult to afford.

However, if the first red alert on air pollution represents an urgent call for everyone in Beijing to follow a greener lifestyle, local policymakers should not hesitate to explore every possible way, including financial, to better protect the most vulnerable groups.

The fact that the Beijing municipal government has added air-purifiers to the list of household appliances needed for substantial energy-saving subsidies speaks volumes of the effectiveness of such equipment in reducing indoor air pollution.

Therefore, to ensure all students can attend cleaner classrooms, local policymakers must consider parents' willingness to support education as well as appliance manufacturers' eagerness to expand their market while they try to raise more funds for education by issuing municipal bonds. Domestic financial institutions may embrace such green financing more enthusiastically than the red alert demands.

The author, Zhu Qiwen, is a senior writer with China Daily.


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