Greenpeace campaigners in Beijing

Beijing residents this morning woke up to grey skies and a thick layer of dust on their cars and bicycles. Greenpeace campaigners headed out onto the streets dressed as themal power plant workers with huge posters of China's coal plants to remind the people of the city exactly what they were breathing.

Every spring in Beijing come the dust storms. And with it they bring a blanket of bitter, grey coal ash from the numerable toxic coal ash sites across Northern China. Last year Greenpeace published a report together with researchers from Fudan University examining the contents of this dust.

"Sandstorms can actually be called 'coal dust storms'," said Greenpeace Climate and Energy Campaigner Dr. Sun Qingwei.

"Coal ash is a very tiny and light particle, easily picked up by wind. Winds traveling at 8 meters per second can already disperse coal ash up to 150,000 square kilometers from their origins in open-air dumping sites. And winds in a sandstorm are even stronger, with speeds of at least 25 meters per second - thus they can spread coal ash much farther. This means that even people who live far from thermal power plants in eastern and southern China must face the threat of coal pollution at their doorstep."

Facts & stats that might scare you!

  • In China coal ash has become one of the biggest toxic waste deposits on earth, accumulating all too rapidly with the increase of coal in the country.
  • Every four tons of coal burned produces one ton of coal ash. 
  • By 2011 the production of coal ash reached over 400 million tons, as a conservative estimate. This is enough to fill one of Beijing's famed Water Cube every day. 
  • Coal ash is pumped or transported to open air sites, where the wind easily picks it up and sends it blowing across the nation.

The coal ash issue is under examination from China's Ministry of Environmental Protection. But according to our Greenpeace report clear control measures for these coal ash sites are needed, so that toxic elements do not blow with the wind or leak into watersheads.

"These dust storms that sweep across half of China bring with them thermal power plant airborne ash, attacking many of the country's major cities. Every year the public has no choice but to breathe in this toxic dust. The Government needs to rid the nation of its reliance on coal as soon as possible," says Dr. Sun Qingwei.

Take action

For now the most important thing you can do is read our report and then spread the word.

1. Post this page on Facebook.

2. Tweet away!   

3. E-mail this page to your friends using the share tool on the left-hand side of the page.

4. If you live in China, avoid going outside on heavily polluted days or try to wear these kinds of masks. Not only will you be protecting yourself, by wearing a mask you'll send a message to the city that the polluted air IS dangerous!

You can also stay informed about this issue as it develops. Sign up to our e-mail action alerts, or friend us on Facebook or Twitter

Image © Lu Guang / Greenpeace