The worst smog for decades in many parts of China has prompted calls to curb fireworks and firecrackers during Spring Festival, which begins on Feb 10.
"The pervasive haze in Beijing has forced me to stay indoors almost all day, and I almost dare not breathe outside without a mask," said Wang Ying, a Beijing resident. "It will be unbearable if people keep setting off fireworks."
By Tuesday evening, netizens had posted about 8 million messages on Sina Weibo, a popular micro-blogging platform, discussing whether people should set off fireworks.
Smoggy weather has dominated central and eastern China since the beginning of the year, with many areas witnessing more than 20 hazy days in January, according to the National Meteorological Center.
Hazy weather covered China for 3.9 days on average between Jan 1 and 28, which was 1.2 days longer than normal and the longest since 1961, according to the National Climate Center.
Beijing was almost completely shrouded by thick haze in January, with only five days without haze as of Tuesday, according to Beijing Meteorological Bureau. The month witnessed the most hazy days since 1954.
The coming Spring Festival will be a peak season for firework celebrations.
The concentration of PM2.5, particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter, which can penetrate the lungs and is more harmful than larger particles, surged to 1,593 micrograms per cubic meter at a monitoring station in Beijing on Spring Festival Eve last year, as residents set off fireworks and firecrackers, according to Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau.
Setting off fireworks contributed greatly to air pollution in Beijing for half a month after Spring Festival in 2011, according to Du Shaozhong, former deputy director of Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau.
"Use of fireworks should be reduced during the holidays," Du said on Sina Weibo.
The office in charge of the firework industry in Beijing said on Tuesday that residents in Beijing can set off fireworks during the Spring Festival holiday according to the regulations, but the office hopes residents can refrain from doing so, the Beijing News reported.
Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, an environmental NGO, called for balanced decisions, as setting off fireworks can cause pollution during festivals, but it has long been a tradition in China.
Beijing banned firecrackers in 1993 due to safety and environmental concerns, but lifted the ban in 2005 amid public calls to restore the tradition.
Ma said flexible measures should be taken.
"For example, relevant departments can release a firework index based on air conditions during festivals," he said. "If the index shows hazy weather is likely to occur due to lack of air movement on a certain day, the fireworks should be banned or reduced on that day."
Zhang Chengdong, deputy director of Jiangsu Festivals and Events Association, said the tradition can be kept in rural areas and smaller cities, but should be strictly limited in large cities.
Wei Bo, a sales manager at Panda Fireworks in Beijing, said the company has been developing fireworks that emit less pollution in recent years, including fireworks with dynamite that produce fewer particles, and firecrackers wrapped in paper that can burn completely.
"But such fireworks and firecrackers only account for a small portion of our products," he said. "We dare not produce them in large quantities as we are worried they will not sell well because they are more expensive."
"Most consumers are price sensitive," he said.
Zhang, from Jiangsu Festivals and Events Association, said the government can encourage enterprises to develop more environmentally friendly firecrackers and fireworks.
"The government can also invest in projects to research and develop substitutes for fireworks and firecrackers, which cause no pollution but produce the same visual effects," he said.
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