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Beijing Issues 1st Smog Red Alert, Orders Half of Cars Off Roads

BEIJING — Beijing issued its first-ever red alert for smog on Monday, urging schools to close and invoking restrictions on factories and traffic that will keep half of the city's vehicles off the roads.

The red alert — the most serious warning on a four-tier system adopted a little over two years ago — means authorities have forecast more than three consecutive days of severe smog.

Beijing Issues Red Alert as City Disappears Into Blanket of Smog 0:45

An online notice from the Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau said it issued the alert to "protect public health and reduce levels of heavy air pollution."

Readings of PM2.5 particles climbed toward 300 micrograms per cubic meter on Monday and are expected to continue rising before the air begins to improve with the arrival of a cold front on Thursday. The World Health Organization designates the safe level for PM2.5 particles at 25.

Related: China Chokes on Smog as World Leaders Talk Climate Change

Along with school closures and limiting cars to driving every other day depending on the last number of their license plate, a raft of other restrictions will seek to reduce the amount of dust and other particulate matter in the city of 22.5 million people. Officials said extra subway trains and buses would be added to handle the additional strain on public transport.

It's the second time this month that notoriously polluted Beijing has experienced a prolonged bout of smog, sending PM2.5 levels in the suburbs as high as 976 micrograms. Beijing was also shrouded in persistent smog for most of November, when power demand soared due to unusually cold weather.

Image: Smog in Beijing, China
A woman wearing a mask to protect herself from pollutants walks past office buildings in Beijing on Monday. Andy Wong / AP

While pollution in the capital improved slightly in the first 10 months of the year, heavy smog that can be seen from outer space regularly forces Beijing schools to suspend outdoor activities and can even prompt highway closures because of reduced visibility.

There previously have been stretches of severe smog that lasted more than three straight days. However, those had been forecast to last three days or less, so they did not trigger a red alert. The alert requires a forecast of more than 72 straight hours with PM2.5 levels of 200 micrograms per cubic meter or more.

Polluted air throughout broad swaths of China has had severe health effects. A study led by atmospheric chemist Jos Lelieveld of Germany's Max Planck Institute and published this year in Nature magazine estimated that 1.4 million people die prematurely because of pollution in China each year.