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Beijing smog taking a toll on public health
Weeks of toxic smog in Beijing have taken a toll on the health of the young and old, forcing Chinese officials to announce a number of measures to stamp out some of the pollution, as Huey Fern Tay reports.

Over the years Beijing has become notorious for its air pollution.

But this winter the dirty smog which has cloaked northern China for weeks has been particularly bad, triggering health warnings as far away as Japan.

In China public anger has forced the government to outline plans to do more to tackle the problem.

China correspondent Huey Fern Tay reports from Beijing.
HUEY FERN TAY, REPORTER: It's been a tough winter in Beijing. The city has shivered through a cold snap and choked on a toxic smoke cloud.

The weeks of air pollution have taken a toll on the health of young and old alike.

At hospitals like this one for children, admissions linked to the smog have reportedly risen by an estimated 20 per cent.

WOMAN AT HOSPITAL (subtitled): We have to believe the government. The most we can do is try our best to be more environmentally friendly. We have to rely on the government.

HUEY FERN TAY (subtitled): Are you worried about your child getting asthma or another respiratory illnesses?

WOMAN AT HOSPITAL (subtitled): Well, if the weather is bad. My child has just recovered (from an asthma attack). We were here today for a check up.

HUEY FERN TAY: At its height, the smog blanketed an area of northern China five times the size of the UK.

(Footage of Beijing from ABC offices is shown)

This is what the capital has looked like from the ABC's Beijing office for most of the past month.

At times, the pollution levels were literally off the charts

CHRIS BUCKLEY, STORE OWNER: Pollution is more of a long-term issue, it's like taking up smoking one or two cigarettes a week. So it probably won't kill you immediately but if you are going to be spending a few years here it's something you want to think about. And especially for parents with kids.

HUEY FERN TAY: Chris Buckley has lived in Beijing for 13 years. He says the smog is the worst he's seen.

But it's been a boon for his business selling air purifiers and face masks. He estimates that sales have shot up by 10 times as people try to shield themselves from harmful pollutants so small they can lodge in the lungs and even enter the bloodstream.

MAN (subtitled): (Looking at face mask) Where is this made? Made in Singapore.

HUEY FERN TAY : Chris Buckley says his business once catered mainly for expats but there are now more Chinese customers.

But these are high-end air purifiers which cost slightly more than $1,000 on average and they're luxuries that many in the city can't afford.

Blue sky days have been exceptionally rare in Beijing since the beginning of the year because of the prolonged period of smog. Just a few weeks ago the air pollution levels soared to an unprecedented high, 40 times above the safety limit set by the World Health Organisation.

Public anger in China over air quality and a lack of transparency prompted the government to change the way it measures the level of air pollution last year.

In response to this latest pollution outbreak, Chinese officials announced a number of measures, including tougher vehicle emission standards and a promise to remove around 180,000 older cars from Beijing's roads within a year. Cleaner diesel fuel will also become mandatory in two years, which is around the same time a nation-wide carbon emissions trading scheme will be launched.

But the government also has an economic incentive to do more. A recent study by Greenpeace and China's Peking University found that the cost to the economy from air pollution was around $US1 billion over the past year.

If there is a silver lining to this smog cloud, it's that the government has been spurred into action. And there's no doubt that it's made people appreciate the little things in life, such as being able to see a clear blue sky.
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