President Xi Jinping on walkabout Tuesday in a Beijing street - without a facemask.

President Xi Jinping on walkabout Tuesday in a Beijing street - without a facemask. Picture credit: AP.

With China's face-mask suppliers running out of stock because of the huge demand caused by air pollution, a local State Government is being sued by a private individual for the first time in China over its failure to curb smog.

Large areas of northern China have been swathed in noxious smog for the last week.

In Beijing the official reading for PM 2.5 (small particles linked to lung cancer and respiratory problems) was 501 micrograms per cubic metre on Wednesday afternoon. At the US embassy where PM 2.5 levels are also monitored, the reading was 542.

Either way, air pollution is over twenty times the World Health Organisation's recommended safe limit of 25.

But if you think that's bad, in the city of Shijiazhuang in nearby Hebei province, the official figure for PM 2.5 is even higher, at 661. Home to much heavy industry, Hebei has been fingered as a major source of the poisonous smog that enveloped Beijing last year, by the China Academy of Sciences.

One of Shijiazhuang's citizens, Li Guixin, has formally submitted a compliant via his district court against the city's Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau, demanding that it "perform its duty to control air pollution according to the law", the Yanzhao Metropolis Daily is reporting.air pollution in Beijing

The submission goes further and demands that the state compensate financially every citizen affected by the smog, which, if he court ruled in his favour, would cost billions of yen. The court has not yet indicated whether it is to accept or dismiss the submission.

"The reason that I'm proposing administrative compensation is to let every citizen see that amid this haze, we're the real victims," the newspaper quotes Li as saying. "Besides the threat to our health, we've also suffered economic losses, and these losses should be borne by the government and the environmental departments because the government is the recipient of corporate taxes, it is a beneficiary."

His lawyer, Wu Yufen, made the submission on his behalf but is not talking to the media because "this information is quite sensitive". In China, the legal system gives citizens the right to appeal.

In Beijing, schoolchildren are being kept indoors and one even closed for a day, so worried are teachers about the effects on children's health.

Authorities have introduced anti-pollution policies but they are often not effective at a local level. 147 industrial companies in Beijing had cut or suspended production as of Tuesday, indicating the economic cost of the crisis.

Hebei's administration pledged in September to ban new projects in heavy industries, close old, inefficient steel and cement factories and reduce coal dependency, but this is taking time. By 2020 it hopes to have reduced steel production capacity to 40% of 2013 levels, or 86 million tonnes per year.

City residents are upset and worried. To try and calm public opinion President Xi Jinping took the unprecedented step of conducting a walkabout in a smoggy Beijing street on Tuesday - without a face-mask. One widely shared online headline read: "Breathing the same air, sharing the same fate".

Ironically, the air pollution is good business for a US company that makes face-masks, 3M. Their products are sold on a Chinese website, Tmall.com, but yesterday 26 out of 29 models had sold out or were unavailable. They are struggling to meet overwhelming demand.

Bernhard Schwartlander, the World Health Organization (WHO)’s representative in China, told Reuters: "Oon days where pollution levels reach or even exceed the scale, we are very concerned and we have to see this as a crisis. There's now clear evidence that, in the long term, high levels of air pollution can actually also cause ... lung cancer."