Across the country more than 450 million people encountered air that was polluted or hazardous during the past year. Some pollution levels over the past four days exceeded the capacity of the measuring devices.
Hundreds-of-millions of Chinese have been suffering because of extraordinarily high smog levels, prompting several lawyers to file lawsuits against city and provincial governments, seeking to hold them responsible for the toxic atmosphere.
The northeast, including the cities of Beijing, Tianjin and the province of Hebei are laboring through record setting levels of pollution since last week. With temperatures falling, residents are turning up the heat, which is primarily coal-generated.
The area, which is home to seven of the country's 10 smoggiest cities, is considered China's front line in its "war on pollution."
Despite government pledges to reduce coal consumption and promote cleaner energy sources pollution levels have soared to record levels.
Since Saturday, a total of 24 cities, including Beijing, have declared pollution "red alerts" prompting the closing of schools and airports and restricting traffic.
An unnamed official from the city of Zoucheng's Environmental Protection Agency called the cuts unprecedented.
"We are facing the worst scenario of pollution this year," the official said.
Governments are to blame
In filing the lawsuit, attorney Li Zhongwei accused local and regional governments of being "all talk and little action," adding that the red alerts "proved that local governments had not conscientiously fulfilled their legal obligations to control air pollution."
The lawsuit accuses officials of allowing pollution to increase in the interests of "toxic economic growth," severely endangering the physical and mental health of millions of people.
Cheng Hai, another lawyer behind the suit, said governments bore overall responsibility for pollution and needed to be held to account.
"We believe that China's smog is not unavoidable, but is the result of weaknesses in governance," he said. "Ordinary people think that the previous stage of economic growth led inevitably to smog, but this is completely wrong."
China has vowed to provide legal channels that will enable citizens to sue polluters, with special tribunals having been set up across the country to handle environmental lawsuits.
The lawyers behind the suits are calling on the governments to issue a formal apology and to pay damages.
China's amended environmental protection law, which took effect nearly two years ago, allows individuals to take legal action, but only via non-profit "social organizations" that have been approved by the government.
"Our plan is to file the suit and we will receive the verdict within seven days on whether or not it will be accepted," said Cheng, "and if it is not accepted, we will take it to the higher Courts."
bik/rc (Reuters, dpa)