Outcry after students in smog-hit Chinese city forced to take exam outdoors

Students taking their exams in an outdoor field amid choking smog in Henan, China.
PHOTO: Twitter account @_OATC_

HENAN/SHIJIAZHUANG, China - More than 400 students in China's Henan province were forced to sit for their exam in an outdoor field amid choking smog, sparking public anger after an image of the exam was circulated on social media.

The 480 pupils were eighth-graders from a middle school in Linzhou, in China's Henan province, who had to endure the heavily-polluted air when they sat for their exam on Monday (Dec 19). Severe pollution had caused local authorities to order the closure of all schools, the South China Morning Post reported.

The image showed rows of students hunched over their desks on a field, with the pupils seated further away appearing only as silhouettes shrouded in the thick haze.

According to the school's principal, the exam was conducted by the school staff, with the staff deciding to proceed with the exam since it had already been organised.

The principal has reportedly been suspended.

Smog blankets northeast China

  • More than 40 cities in China's northeast have issued pollution warnings in the past 48 hours after being blanketed by heavy smog.
  • Air quality index (AQI) readings at some monitoring stations in Tianjin, a port and industrial city southeast of Beijing, peaked above 400.
  • China's environmental watchdog issued a five-day warning on Friday about choking smog spreading across the northeast.
  • The authority also ordered factories to shut, recommended residents stay indoors and curbed traffic and construction work.
  • Pollution alerts have become increasingly common in China's northern industrial heartland, especially during winter when energy demand - much of it met by coal - skyrockets.
  • In addition, heavy winds force pollution from nearby provinces to the Beijing-Tianjin area where it remains suspended over the cities.
  • Beijing's city government ordered 1,200 factories near the Chinese capital, including a major oil refinery run by state oil giant Sinopec, to shut or cut output on Saturday.
  • On Saturday, 22 cities issued red alerts including top steelmaking city Tangshan in Hebei province around Beijing, and Jinan in coal-rich Shandong province.
  • Red alerts are issued when the AQI is forecast to exceed 200 for more than four days in succession, 300 for more than two days or 500 for at least 24 hours.
  • Tianjin was placed on orange alert - the second highest level - on Sunday.
  • In Beijing, the city's Municipal Environmental Monitoring Centre showed air quality readings of above 300 in some parts on Sunday (Dec 18) afternoon.
  • But the index was below 200 in most parts of the Chinese capital.
  • "When I went out yesterday I didn't wear a mask and my throat really hurt and I felt dizzy. It was hard to breathe through my nose," Chen Xiaochong, a hotel manager in the capital, told Reuters
  • A man swims in a lake in smog during a heavily polluted day in Beijing.
  • The forbidden city is seen in smog during a heavily polluted day.

The smog started to enshroud Beijing, Tianjin and the provinces of Hebei, Henan and Shandong over the weekend. It is forecast to clear on Thursday.

The oppressive haze had triggered concern over the slow response to the threat to children's health, AFP reported.

Nowhere has been hit as hard as Shijiazhuang, the capital of Hebei province.

Shijiazhuang was one of the more than 20 cities which went on red alert last Friday evening, triggering an emergency plan to reduce pollution by closing polluting factories and taking cars off the road, among other measures.

A decision by the city's education department to wait until Tuesday evening to announce it was closing elementary schools and kindergartens, provoked anger on social media.

The announcement had said middle and high schools could close on a voluntary basis.

"Are middle school students' bodies' air purifiers?" one incredulous commentator asked, adding: "Are you going to wait for us all to become sick before you step up to fix this?"

Shijiazhuang has seen 10 bouts of serious air pollution so far this winter, according to the China Daily newspaper, putting it at the top of the environmental ministry's list of cities with the worst air quality.

Over the last 48 hours, levels of PM 10 - a measure of particulates in the atmosphere - have been literally off the charts in the city, repeatedly maxing out at 999.

Levels of the smaller PM 2.5 particles, tiny enough to be absorbed into the bloodstream and thought to be a major contributor to respiratory and cardiovascular disease, reached as high as 733, more than 29 times the World Health Organisation's daily recommended maximum exposure of 25.

Shijiazhuang's smog and its government's reticence to act have tested the patience of not just the public but even state media.

On Tuesday, the official Xinhua news agency published an article scolding public officials in the city for waiting to cancel schools even though smog was "off the charts".

"If (officials) turn a deaf ear or act indifferent, and the people, especially minors, are exposed to potential health risks, this is undoubtedly a dereliction of duty," it said.

This article was first published on December 21, 2016. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.