The day before Lunar New Year’s Eve, Beijing’s municipal government sent a text message blast to residents, urging them to “set off fewer fireworks or none at all,” fearing a surge of hazardous PM2.5 particulates and toxic air pollution. Despite warnings, as the clock struck midnight in Beijing on Thursday night, the usual frenzy of fireworks could be seen and heard across the city.
Real-time air quality measurements before and after the fireworks show a sharp rise in PM2.5 levels later into the evening as fireworks continued to go off. At 11pm on Lunar New Year’s Eve, air quality levels in Beijing were at 207, which is already considered to be a “very unhealthy” level. Across the country, other cities were also already experiencing unhealthy pollution levels.
Just three hours later, at 2am, after the height of the fireworks, new readings were at 394, reaching the “hazardous” threshold on the Air Quality Index. Consistent with fireworks and New Year’s celebrations across the country, the air levels in other cities also shot up, to unhealthy and hazardous levels as well.
It’s not entirely surprising that Beijing’s warnings were ignored on Lunar New Year’s Eve. Fireworks are an essential part of the celebration for the Chinese. The loud noises and bright soaring colors are supposed to ward off evil spirits and bad luck for the year to come, allowing families to start anew. According to state media, during the New Year’s celebration in 2012, PM2.5 levels surged to 1,486 per cubic meter, which is more than 40 times the standard of safe air in the U.S.
Other cities however have put on tighter restrictions on firework use. According to Xinhua News Agency, one city in eastern China, Hangzhou, issued a notice permitting fireworks for the first three days of the holiday, down from the 18-day period from last year.
Some others online are not as keen to stop setting off their fireworks. Microbloggers have voiced discontent over the new recommendations from the government. “So you want us to stop lighting fireworks but you won’t shut down the steel factories that are pumping pollution daily?” one blogger wrote. “A week of no fireworks will not solve the problem,” another added.