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China's state media finally admits to air pollution crisis

According to the newspaper China Daily, pollution levels have gotten so bad they're creating respiratory problems, prompting residents to seek air purifiers and face masks. NBC's Brian Williams reports.

BEIJING -- If you have been following China’s state-controlled news media you could be forgiven for thinking that clear blue skies -- not oppressive and choking smog -- have been the rule this winter.

But, finally, they seem to have noticed there is a problem.

Days after huge smog clouds settled on some of China’s most important cities, The People's Daily ran two articles on the pollution crisis Monday.

And while one headline declared that “Beautiful China begins to breathe healthily,” the article itself detailed the extent of the problems.

Experts and environmentalists describe the impact that air pollution has in China, which burns half of the world's coal.

China Central Television News Channel also covered the issue extensively over the weekend.

Visibly high levels of air pollution were probably behind the admissions that the smog -- dubbed “fog” by many -- had reached dangerous levels. 

On Monday, air pollution reached "critical levels" in 67 of China's cities, CCTV reported.

State-run media has even begun citing statistics from international environmental group Greenpeace that indicate that more than 2,500 people probably died prematurely in Beijing in 2012 because of air pollution. 

Thousands of deaths estimated
Greenpeace estimated that in 2012, more than 8,000 people suffered premature death in four major cities -- Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Xian.

Wang Zhao/AFP-Getty Images

Two people wearing face masks make their way along a street in Beijing Tuesday.

Patients in Beijing hospital’s respiratory and pediatric departments increased significantly recently, The Beijing Evening News reported.

About 30 percent of the more than 9,000 patients treated every day at Beijing Children’s Hospital in the week that ended Sunday were suffering from respiratory problems, the newspaper added. The hospital declined NBC’s interview request.

Despite the bad news, some environmentalists were celebrating over the weekend.

“I’m kind of telling myself it’s great that the air pollution reached this level so that the people and the government can finally pay attention,” Li Bo, a board member of non-profit group Friends of Nature, said.

Beijing's bureau of environmental protection held a rare press conference Monday to explain the severity of the pollution problem, and outline an emergency plan to reduce the levels of harmful air particles.

The government’s recent attention to the issue comes after decades of prioritizing economic development over environmental conservation, critics say.

'How come we survive?'
On the streets, many seemed unconcerned.

Ma Xin, a 22-year-old street vendor who sells leather coats, said he did not believe Beijing’s air was all that harmful.

“If Beijing’s air is as bad as you say, how come we survive?” he said, dismissing data about air quality.

And Gong Jingyan, who has a masters degree from a top-tier Chinese university and works at one of most prestigious banks in China, said while she realized the “air is harmful,” she did not like wearing a mask because “they look ugly.”

Gong takes a different approach in an attempt to combat air pollution. “I drink water boiled with pear to help my lungs stay clean,” she said.

Huang Xue, a manager at a public relations firm, also expressed concern, but said there was little that could be done.

“We never had this concept of protecting ourselves from air,” she said. “The only thing I could think of doing was to stay indoors.”

“I am not convinced a mask can do a lot,” she added. “Besides, my 18-month-old son will never keep a mask on.”

However, there is at least one way to cope: Leave town.

As soon as Beijing resident Gao Lin, a part-time lawyer and a mother of two, saw Saturday’s record-breaking pollution levels, she bought tickets to Sanya, a resort island in the South China Sea.

“We are leaving tomorrow,” Gao said. “The only way you can escape from bad air is to leave Beijing.”

NBC News’ Yanzhou Liu contributed to this report

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