Still air traps smog in China's capital triggering 'red alert'

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Beijing in Pollution 'Red Alert'

BEIJING (Reuters) - A blanket of humid air trapping smog brought Beijing's first pollution "red alert" on Tuesday although many residents ignored warnings to limit time outdoors and authorities said the pollution would last several more days.

Hundreds of people, including toddlers, packed Tiananmen Square to watch a daily flag-raising ceremony while China's state radio said some motorists were ignoring a ban on vehicles bearing odd-numbered license plates.

Rapid industrial growth and car ownership over the past decade or more have led to high levels of pollution in major urban areas and Chinese researches have identified the problem as a major source of unrest.

Certain weather conditions can exacerbate the problem.

Click through for photos of China's smog problem:

31 PHOTOS
Smog in China and India, air pollution
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Still air traps smog in China's capital triggering 'red alert'
Commuters drive on a road in heavy pollution in Beijing on December 1, 2015. Beijing ordered hundreds of factories to shut and allowed children to skip school as choking smog reached over 25 times safe levels on December 1, casting a cloud over China's participation in Paris climate talks. AFP PHOTO / WANG ZHAO / AFP / WANG ZHAO (Photo credit should read WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - DECEMBER 01: A woman wearing a mask practices roller blading at Olympic Park during dheavy smog on December 1, 2015 in Beijing, China. The representatives of the governments of more than 190 countries are meeting in Paris this week, including Chinese President Xi Jinping will attend the Paris meeting. (Photo by Feng Li/Getty Images)
A woman uses her scarf to cover her mouth as she crosses a street in Beijing on December 1, 2015. Beijing ordered hundreds of factories to shut and allowed children to skip school as choking smog reached over 25 times safe levels on December 1, casting a cloud over China's participation in Paris climate talks. AFP PHOTO / WANG ZHAO / AFP / WANG ZHAO (Photo credit should read WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - DECEMBER 01: A man rides riding a tricycle with plastic bottles to be recycled on a day of heavy pollution on December 1, 2015 in Beijing, China. China's capital and many cities in the northern part of the country recorded the worst smog of the year with air quality devices in some areas unable to read such high levels of pollutants. Levels of PM 2.5, considered the most hazardous, crossed 600 units in Beijing, nearly 25 times the acceptable standard set by the World Health Organization. The governments of more than 190 countries are meeting in Paris this week to set targets on reducing carbon emissions in an attempt to forge a new global agreement on climate change. (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)
Commuters drive on a road in heavy pollution in Beijing on December 1, 2015. Beijing ordered hundreds of factories to shut and allowed children to skip school as choking smog reached over 25 times safe levels on December 1, casting a cloud over China's participation in Paris climate talks. AFP PHOTO / WANG ZHAO / AFP / WANG ZHAO (Photo credit should read WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - DECEMBER 01: A subway passing bridge on a day of heavy pollution on December 1, 2015 in Beijing, China. China's capital and many cities in the northern part of the country recorded the worst smog of the year with air quality devices in some areas unable to read such high levels of pollutants. Levels of PM 2.5, considered the most hazardous, crossed 600 units in Beijing, nearly 25 times the acceptable standard set by the World Health Organization. The governments of more than 190 countries are meeting in Paris this week to set targets on reducing carbon emissions in an attempt to forge a new global agreement on climate change. (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)
People arrive at the airport on a polluted day in Beijing on December 1, 2015. China has ordered thousands of factories to shut as it grapples with swathes of choking smog that were nearly 24 times safe levels on December 1, casting a shadow over the country's participation in Paris climate talks. A thick grey haze shrouded Beijing, with the concentration of PM 2.5, harmful microscopic particles that penetrate deep into the lungs, climbing as high as 598 micrograms per cubic metre AFP PHOTO / FRED DUFOUR / AFP / FRED DUFOUR (Photo credit should read FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images)
Visitors wear masks as they walk in Tiananmen Square during heavy pollution in Beijing on December 1, 2015. Beijing ordered hundreds of factories to shut and allowed children to skip school as choking smog reached over 25 times safe levels on December 1, casting a cloud over China's participation in Paris climate talks. AFP PHOTO / WANG ZHAO / AFP / WANG ZHAO (Photo credit should read WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images)
People walk through a overpass in Beijing on December 1, 2015. Beijing ordered hundreds of factories to shut and allowed children to skip school as choking smog reached over 25 times safe levels on December 1, casting a cloud over China's participation in Paris climate talks. AFP PHOTO / WANG ZHAO / AFP / WANG ZHAO (Photo credit should read WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images)
Pedestrians walk past a billboard scene of green trees and grass on a heavily polluted day in Beijing on December 1, 2015. China has ordered thousands of factories to shut as it grapples with swathes of choking smog that were nearly 24 times safe levels on December 1, casting a shadow over the country's participation in Paris climate talks. A thick grey haze shrouded Beijing, with the concentration of PM 2.5, harmful microscopic particles that penetrate deep into the lungs, climbing as high as 598 micrograms per cubic metre. AFP PHOTO / GREG BAKER / AFP / GREG BAKER (Photo credit should read GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - DECEMBER 01: Chinese Tai Chi practitioners exercise at a local park on a high pollution day on December 1, 2015 in Beijing, China. China's capital and many cities in the northern part of the country recorded the worst smog of the year with air quality devices in some areas unable to read such high levels of pollutants. Levels of PM 2.5, considered the most hazardous, crossed 600 units in Beijing, nearly 25 times the acceptable standard set by the World Health Organization. The governments of more than 190 countries are meeting in Paris this week to set targets on reducing carbon emissions in an attempt to forge a new global agreement on climate change. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - NOVEMBER 30: A Chinese man wears a protective face mask as he passes by the CCTV building on a day of heavy pollution on November 30, 2015 in Beijing, China. China's capital and many cities in the northern part of the country recorded the worst smog of the year with air quality devices in some areas unable to read such high levels of pollutants. Levels of PM 2.5, considered the most hazardous, crossed 600 units in Beijing, nearly 25 times the acceptable standard set by the World Health Organization. The governments of more than 190 countries are meeting in Paris this week to set targets on reducing carbon emissions in an attempt to forge a new global agreement on climate change.(Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - DECEMBER 01: Tourists visit the Olympic Park during dheavy smog on December 1, 2015 in Beijing, China. The representatives of the governments of more than 190 countries are meeting in Paris this week, including Chinese President Xi Jinping will attend the Paris meeting. (Photo by Li Feng/Getty Images)
This combination image of two photographs taken on December 3, 2015 (top) and two days earlier on December 1 (bottom) shows a skyscraper under clear skies and in heavy pollution, as seen in the central business district in Beijing. The skies cleared in Beijing on December 2 and 3, after being swathed in choking smog that was nearly 24 times safe levels earlier in the week. AFP PHOTO / GREG BAKER / AFP / GREG BAKER (Photo credit should read GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images)
This photo combo shows a general view of people visiting Tiananmen Square during a heavily polluted day on December 1, 2015 (LOWER) and two days later when the smog cleared on December 3 (TOP) in Beijing. The skies cleared in Beijing on December 2 and 3, after being swathed in choking smog that was nearly 24 times safe levels earlier in the week. AFP PHOTO / WANG ZHAO / AFP / WANG ZHAO (Photo credit should read WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images)
A woman wearing a mask exits an underpass in Beijing on November 30, 2015. Beijing choked under the worst smog of the year on November 30, with dangerous particulates nearly 20 times healthy levels, as China's president joined other leaders in Paris for key climate change talks. AFP PHOTO / WANG ZHAO / AFP / WANG ZHAO (Photo credit should read WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - NOVEMBER 30: A couple wear protective masks as they have their picture taken outside the Forbidden City on a day of heavy pollution on November 30, 2015 in Beijing, China. China's capital and many cities in the northern part of the country recorded the worst smog of the year with air quality devices in some areas unable to read such high levels of pollutants. Levels of PM 2.5, considered the most hazardous, crossed 600 units in Beijing, nearly 25 times the acceptable standard set by the World Health Organization. The governments of more than 190 countries are meeting in Paris this week to set targets on reducing carbon emissions in an attempt to forge a new global agreement on climate change. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
SHANGHAI, CHINA - NOVEMBER 30: (CHINA OUT) Buildings at the Lujiazui Financial District are shrouded in smog on November 30, 2015 in Shanghai, China. Shanghai's real-time Air pollution index (API) read high 189 on Monday morning. (Photo by ChinaFotoPress/ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images)
Pedestrians walk over a footbridge shrouded in haze as vehicles drive on a highway in Beijing, China, on Monday, Nov. 30, 2015. Air pollution reached 'hazardous' levels in Beijing on Sunday, prompting the city to upgrade to the second-highest alert for the first time in 13 months on the same day that the Chinese government said it has met pollution-reduction targets for the year. Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images
BEIJING, CHINA - NOVEMBER 30: A Chinese woman wears a protective mask as she walks outside the Forbidden City on a day of heavy pollution on November 30, 2015 in Beijing, China. China's capital and many cities in the northern part of the country recorded the worst smog of the year with air quality devices in some areas unable to read such high levels of pollutants. Levels of PM 2.5, considered the most hazardous, crossed 600 units in Beijing, nearly 25 times the acceptable standard set by the World Health Organization. The governments of more than 190 countries are meeting in Paris this week to set targets on reducing carbon emissions in an attempt to forge a new global agreement on climate change. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
A woman wearing a mask walks past in Beijing on November 30, 2015. Beijing choked under the worst smog of the year on November 30, with dangerous particulates nearly 20 times healthy levels, as China's president joined other leaders in Paris for key climate change talks. AFP PHOTO / WANG ZHAO / AFP / WANG ZHAO (Photo credit should read WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images)
A man wears a mask on a polluted day in Beijing on November 30, 2015. Beijing choked under the worst smog of the year on November 30, with dangerous particulates nearly 20 times healthy levels, as China's president joined other leaders in Paris for key climate change talks. AFP PHOTO / FRED DUFOUR / AFP / FRED DUFOUR (Photo credit should read FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images)
To go with Climate-warming-UN-COP21-India,FOCUS by Trudy Harris In this November 15, 2015 photo, Indian joggers exercise on a smoggy morning near the India Gate monument in New Delhi. India's capital, with 18 million residents, has the world's most polluted air with six times the amount of small particulate matter (pm2.5) than what is considered safe, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The air's hazardous amount of pm2.5 can reach deep into the lungs and enter the blood, causing serious long term health effect, with the WHO warning India has the world's highest death rate from chronic respiratory diseases. India, home to 13 of the world's top 20 polluted cities, is also the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases behind the United States and China. In Delhi, the air pollution is due to vehicle traffic including cargo trucks running on low-grade diesel, individual fires that residents burn in winter, crop being burnt by farmers in neighboring states, and construction site dust. Burning coal in power plants is also major contributor that is expected to increase hugely in the coming decades to match electricity needs of the ever-growing city and its booming satellite towns. (Photo credit should read ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images)
An Indian schoolgirl covers her nose and mouth as she walks with others along a busy road on a smoggy day in New Delhi on November 30, 2015. Some 150 leaders including US President Barack Obama, China's Xi Jinping, India's Narendra Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin will attend the start of the Paris conference on climate change, which starts on November 30, tasked with reaching the first truly universal climate pact. AFP PHOTO / Money SHARMA / AFP / MONEY SHARMA (Photo credit should read MONEY SHARMA/AFP/Getty Images)
Heavy traffic is seen during a smoggy day in New Delhi on November 30, 2015. Some 150 leaders including US President Barack Obama, China's Xi Jinping, India's Narendra Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin will attend the start of the Paris conference on climate change, which starts on November 30, tasked with reaching the first truly universal climate pact. AFP PHOTO / Money SHARMA / AFP / MONEY SHARMA (Photo credit should read MONEY SHARMA/AFP/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - NOVEMBER 30: A residence community is blanketed by smog on November 30, 2015 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Xiao Lu Chu/Getty Images)
A man wears a mask on a polluted day in Beijing on November 30, 2015. Beijing choked under the worst smog of the year on November 30, with dangerous particulates nearly 20 times healthy levels, as China's president joined other leaders in Paris for key climate change talks. AFP PHOTO / FRED DUFOUR / AFP / FRED DUFOUR (Photo credit should read FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images)
SHANGHAI, CHINA - NOVEMBER 30: (CHINA OUT) People take photos at The Bund in smog on November 30, 2015 in Shanghai, China. Shanghai's real-time Air pollution index (API) read high 189 on Monday morning. (Photo by ChinaFotoPress/ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images)
Heavy traffic is seen during a smoggy day in New Delhi on November 30, 2015. Some 150 leaders including US President Barack Obama, China's Xi Jinping, India's Narendra Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin will attend the start of the Paris conference on climate change, which starts on November 30, tasked with reaching the first truly universal climate pact. AFP PHOTO / Money SHARMA / AFP / MONEY SHARMA (Photo credit should read MONEY SHARMA/AFP/Getty Images)
SHANGHAI, CHINA - NOVEMBER 30: (CHINA OUT) Buildings at the Lujiazui Financial District are shrouded in smog on November 30, 2015 in Shanghai, China. Shanghai's real-time Air pollution index (API) read high 189 on Monday morning. (Photo by ChinaFotoPress/ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images)
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Environment Minister Chen Jining called a special meeting late on Monday to urge greater vigilance against pollution in Beijing and nearby cities and he increased the number of environmental inspection teams to 12, ThePaper.cn, a state-backed news website, reported.

Smog has been a public health concern in Beijing for years but the government's response has come under extra scrutiny in the past week because it faced heavy criticism for not issuing a red alert during an earlier episode of hazardous smog.

A red alert means nearly half of vehicles are ordered off the roads, heavy vehicles banned, schools advised to cancel classes, businesses recommended to allow flexible working hours and all "large-scale, outdoor activities" should be stopped.

"This measure reflects that the government, at least, has the courage to face this problem," said Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, a Chinese environmental group, referring to the red alert.

"Before, they were more or less somewhat reluctant to acknowledge the problem. Now there's a willingness to face this problem directly."

The red alert has been imposed until Thursday. Environmental group Greenpeace called it "a welcome sign of a different attitude from the Beijing government".

'FEELS LIKE CHEMICAL WARFARE'

Bernhard Schwartländer, the World Health Organisation's representative in China, said the alert "means, first and foremost, that the Beijing authorities are taking air quality, and related health issues, very seriously".

The Beijing City Emergency Office said "still weather, reduced cold temperatures and an increase in humidity" prompted the alert, the Xinhua state news agency reported.

In the northern city of Taiyuan, six people were killed and four injured in a 33-vehicle pileup on a highway cloaked in smog, the Xinhua said.

Some people in Beijing tried to dodge the restrictions. State media showed a policeman removing paper stuck over the last, odd, digit of a car's license plate.

By late afternoon, the U.S. embassy's monitoring station recorded "hazardous" air quality.

Many city residents donned industrial-strength face masks.

"I feel like I'm engaged in chemical warfare," one commuter said on social media.

Still, the ruling Communist Party's official People's Daily, without a hint of irony, praised China's contribution to fighting climate change in a commentary written to coincide with climate talks in Paris.

"People everywhere are looking forward to China's continuous progress on the road to green development, acting as a model for the world to tackle the challenge of climate change," the newspaper said.

(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard and Beijing Newsroom; Editing by Nick Macfie, Robert Birsel)

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