The suffocating smog that blanketed swathes of China is now hitting parts of Japan, sparking warnings Monday of health risks for young people and those in poor health.
The environment ministry’s website has been overloaded by worried people trying to determine what exactly is headed their way.
“Access to our air-pollution monitoring system has been almost impossible since last week, and the telephone here has been constantly ringing because worried people keep asking us about the impact on health,” said one ministry official.
Pictures of Beijing and other Chinese cities shrouded in thick, choking smog have been playing out on Japanese TV screens since last week.
News programs have broadcasted maps showing a swirl of pollution gathering strength across China and spreading over the ocean toward Japan.
Pink, red and orange hues denoting the worst pollution have formed a finger of smog that is inching northward toward Kyushu.
Relations between Tokyo and Beijing are already being strained by a sovereignty row over an uninhabited chain of islands in the East China Sea.
While most officials were coy about lumping all the blame on Japan’s huge neighbor, ministry bureaucrat Yasushi Nakajima said some things are undeniable.
“We can’t deny there is an impact from pollution in China,” he said.
Air pollution over west Japan has exceeded government limits over the past few days, with tiny particulate matter posing a significant problem, said Atsushi Shimizu of the National Institute for Environmental Studies.
The prevailing winds from the west carry over such particles from mainland Asia, he said. Most of the concern is focusing on the concentration of particles 2.5 micrometers or less in diameter. The concentration has been as high as 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air recently in northern Kyushu.
The government limit is 35 micrograms.
Yellow sand from the deserts of Mongolia and China is known to be a source of these particles, as well as automobile and factory fumes.
“At this time of year there is definitely not any yellow sand, so they’re toxic particles,” Shimizu said, warning that “people with respiratory diseases should be careful.”
Toshihiko Takemura, an associate professor of Kyushu University who runs another air monitoring site, confirmed that air pollution from China is nothing new.
“The impact of air pollution originating from China on Japan was scientifically discovered more than a decade ago,” he said.
“Especially in Kyushu, the level of air pollution has been detectable in our everyday lives since a few years ago,” he said. “People in eastern and northern Japan are now belatedly noticing the cross-border air pollution.”
Takemura, however, said the pollution in Japan over the past few days hasn’t been as bad as it was in February 2011, when “very hazy days continued for several days in western Japan.”
He agreed with Shimizu that people with respiratory diseases, as well as small children, should take extra care.
Takemura’s website projected that an “extremely large” amount of airborne pollutants will land on parts of Kyushu Monday and Tuesday.
Shimizu said information-sharing with China on the issue has been difficult but that “there are many things Japan can do, for instance encouraging China to use pollutant-filtering equipment in factories.”