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China smog drives masks out of stock

Buildings are seen shrouded in heavy haze at Qingdao development zone, Shandong province, February 25, 2014. (REUTERS/Stringer)

BEIJING: China’s biggest online face-mask sellers were running out of stock Wednesday as consumers rushed to protect themselves from smog that has shrouded large swathes of northern China for a week.

Beijing’s official reading for PM 2.5 – small airborne particles which easily penetrate the lungs and have been linked to hundreds of thousands of premature deaths – stood at 501 micrograms per cubic meter Wednesday afternoon. The World Health Organization’s recommended safe limit is 25.

The situation was improving, however, with the reading for a location in the center of the capital at 100 by Wednesday evening.

An alternative measure by the U.S. Embassy in Beijing said PM 2.5 levels were at 542 in the city in the afternoon but had fallen to 180 in the evening.

The capital was on its sixth day of an “orange” smog alert – the second-highest on the scale – with the air tasting gritty and visibility down to a few hundred meters.

Of the 29 models of face masks provided by U.S. equipment supplier 3M’s flagship store on Tmall.com, a business-to-consumer shopping platform, 26 were sold out or unavailable Wednesday.

“I’m looking for face masks and an air purifier as the smog is getting worse. And then I found masks were sold out and the price of air purifiers is shooting up. Is everybody panicking?” complained a user with the online handle Simao’s Early Riser Mum on Sina Weibo, a Chinese equivalent of Twitter.

Concerns about the effect on children’s health were particularly high, with most schools in Beijing keeping students indoors all day long according to Chinese media reports.

One school defied education authorities by keeping its junior high department closed Wednesday.

Cities nationwide have been hit by severe air pollution in recent years, much of it caused by emissions from coal-burning power stations.

It has become a major source of discontent with the authorities.

President Xi Jinping paid a rare visit to one of Beijing’s smog-hit streets Tuesday – without a face mask – drawing praise from Internet users for his latest apparent attempt to portray himself as close to ordinary citizens.

One widely shared online headline read: “Breathing the same air, sharing the same fate.”

The pollution, which tends to worsen in winter, is blamed on the use of coal for energy, dramatic economic development, increasing car use and climatic factors.

The National Meteorological Center has said the pollution was expected to continue until Thursday.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 27, 2014, on page 11.

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Summary

China's biggest online face-mask sellers were running out of stock Wednesday as consumers rushed to protect themselves from smog that has shrouded large swathes of northern China for a week.

The situation was improving, however, with the reading for a location in the center of the capital at 100 by Wednesday evening.

An alternative measure by the U.S. Embassy in Beijing said PM 2.5 levels were at 542 in the city in the afternoon but had fallen to 180 in the evening.

The capital was on its sixth day of an "orange" smog alert – the second-highest on the scale – with the air tasting gritty and visibility down to a few hundred meters.

One school defied education authorities by keeping its junior high department closed Wednesday.


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