Inside China's pollution problems

Seth Doane reports on the nation's pollution problems
Seth Doane reports on the nation's pollution ... 03:32

Beijing is suffering through a week of dangerous air pollution levels. Even Chinese officials say the air is "unbearable."

Beijing's skyline disappears into smog as traffic cops and even toddlers don masks. Pollution is primarily caused by coal burning for heat and the more than five million cars on the road.

Students outfitted statues with masks to push classmates to think about pollution, while others are making smog a not-so-subtle partner in photos circulated online.

CBS News' Seth Doane reported from Beijing, "Many of us (who live in China) have apps on our phones that tell us the current pollution levels. The (Environmental Protection Agency) established a scale that runs from zero to 500, with 500 the worst. Today's pollution reading is above 500 -- beyond index. That means the average pollution levels are around 20 times higher than what the World Health Organization considers 'safe.'"

There's not much of a view from the 15th floor of American doctor, Richard St. Cyr's apartment. At Beijing United -- where he's a family physician -- patients pepper him with questions.

St. Cyr said, "(Patients ask) 'Does an air purifier actually work?' 'Does a mask actually do anything?' 'Should you exercise outside on a bad day or not?'"

St. Cyr said not only does he not have all the answers, "it's things that I want to know."

He started a blog to dole out advice and reveal what data he could uncover.

"Many times I've gone around my apartment like a crazy man with an air particle monitor, and I've borrowed like many machines and I've tested them in different rooms and I'll publish the results on my blog," St. Cyr said.

Beijing has not yet raised its color-coded alert to red -- the highest level -- but for nearly a week, the city has encouraged schools to keep kids inside and residents to wear masks.

State media has broadcast pictures of a steel factory being demolished -- because it's one of the heavy-polluting industries -- and it's reporting that 147 industrial companies in Beijing have cut or suspended production to combat smog.

While clothing was optional at Beijing's annual "Naked Run," masks were worn. And when China's President Xi Jinping made a surprise visit to a Beijing neighborhood earlier this week, much of the chatter online was that he did not wear a mask.

China's pollution problems are expected to be on the government's agenda at the national Peoples Congress set to begin March 5. After last year's meeting, China's premier said pollution gave him a heavy heart. However, the Chinese government's attempts to deal with pollution problems are difficult to detect on a day like this.