BEIJING — School was canceled, traffic was nearly paralyzed and the airport was closed in the northeast Chinese city of Harbin on Monday as record pollution dropped visibility to less than 10 yards.
A dark, gray cloud that the local weather bureau described as heavy fog has shrouded Harbin, home to 10 million people, since Thursday, but the smoke thickened significantly Sunday, after the coal-powered municipal heating system was started for the winter.
“You can’t see your own fingers in front of you,” the city’s official news site said. A resident of Harbin commented on Sina Weibo, the popular microblog, “You can hear the person you are talking to, but not see him.” Another resident added that he could not see the person he was holding hands with.
The airport in Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang province, said on its official microblog Monday morning that dozens of flights had been delayed or diverted because the smog had reduced visibility so drastically. In the early evening, the airport said all flights had been canceled.
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The Harbin government reported an air-quality-index score of 500, the highest possible reading and more than 10 times as polluted as the air in New York on Monday. Some Harbin neighborhood reporting stations showed that concentrations of PM2.5 — fine particulates that are 2.5 microns in diameter or smaller and especially harmful to health — were as high as 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter, according to the China News Service.
The Chinese government describes an air-quality index between 301 and 500 as “heavily polluted” and urges people to refrain from exercising outdoors; the elderly and other vulnerable populations are supposed to stay indoors entirely. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency uses a similar index that labels any reading between 301 and 500 as “hazardous.”
Both scales reach their limit at 500, leaving creative citizens of polluted cities to come up with their own labels when the air gets worse. The World Health Organization has standards that judge a score above 500 to be more than 20 times the level of particulate matter in the air deemed safe.
On Monday, people in Harbin were covering their heads and mouths with scarves and masks to thwart the choking smell. Cars, with headlights on, were moving no faster than pedestrians and honking frequently as drivers struggled to see traffic lights yards away, the city’s official news site said.
At an emergency meeting called at 6 a.m., the authorities decided to close all schools and kindergartens, the news site said. The local police also shut several highways at 7 a.m., but not before the smog caused two pileups, which left one truck driver injured, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
The pollution in Harbin has caused a 30 percent increase in hospital admissions of patients with respiratory problems, according to the local news media. Residents have been told by doctors to wear masks and eat pears, a fruit commonly believed in northern China to help heal lungs.
The city weather bureau attributed the pollution to a lack of wind; local farms burning corn leaves and stalks after the harvest; and the start of the municipal central-heating system, which provides heat to millions of homes and offices and relies on large coal-burning boilers across the city.
The system pumps hot water into radiators and is supposed to heat residences to at least 18 degrees Celsius (64 degrees Fahrenheit). But Harbin, not far from the Russian border, is one of China’s coldest cities, and its coal-dependent heating system means it must choose each year between heat and clean air.
Harbin has been battling air pollution for years, destroying hundreds of smaller boilers, banning the use of high-sulfur coal and adopting cleaner fuel standards for cars.
Temperatures are forecast to drop to freezing this week, but the local weather bureau said the cold front could also bring rain that could purge some of the pollution.
Some residents compared the air to something out of a horror film. One Internet user with the screen name Han Doudou wrote: “If you think this is the movie set for ‘Silent Hill,’ ‘Resident Evil’ or ‘The Walking Dead,’ you are wrong — this is Harbin.”