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How Smog Is Putting a Damper on Chinese New Year

The festivities will be a bit quieter this year as cities put restrictions on the long-held tradition of setting off fireworks.

A man takes a picture on his phone as fireworks are set off in Shanghai during Chinese New Year in 2015. (Reuters/Carlos Barria)

Chinese New Year, which falls on February 8, is going to be a little quieter and a bit less jubilant this year as Chinese cities ban fireworks to combat the country’s increasingly dire smog problem.

Shanghai in particular has, for the first time ever, banned all fireworks the inner-city areas surrounding what’s called the Outer Ring Road. The police have recruited more than 300,000 volunteers to enforce the rules, and violators can face up to $75 in fines.

In Beijing, the government hasn’t officially prohibited fireworks, but said a ban will be put in place if air pollution alerts are raised to orange or red. Meanwhile, the city has limited the sale of fireworks. According to People’s Daily, about 700 vendors began selling fireworks this past Wednesday, 23.7 percent fewer than the previous year.

Other cities, including Nanjing and Hangzhou, have also imposed bans inside urban areas, according to Bloomberg. And this isn’t the first time such a ban has been proposed: Last year, more than 700 cities in China imposed some sort of restriction on the use of fireworks. The Wall Street Journal, citing Chinese official media, reported that a fifth of cities have outright banned them.

But setting off fireworks is a big deal to those who celebrate Chinese New Year. Thought to drive away evil spirits and bring good luck, hundreds of millions of fireworks are expected to be set off all over the country during the weeklong holiday. Some displays are minor, while others are grand spectacles.

But once the show is over, blankets of smoke remain. The smell of gunpowder lingers in the air for days. According to the Chinese official news agency, all that extra smoke from the New Year’s Eve festivities on February 7 will hang around for at least four days, with air pollution levels peaking February 10.

In one study on the effects of fireworks on the atmosphere, researchers from the Shanghai Jiaotong University Combustion and Environment Technology Research Center found that setting off just three firecrackers in a 30-cubic-meter chamber raised the concentration of fine particulate matter to more than 40 times the level deemed safe by the World Health Organization, according to China Daily.

So imagine the effect of millions of fireworks being set off. Just check out the aftermath of this massive firecracker display in a video that went viral in 2014:

Even with the ban in place, citizens are still determined to celebrate the Year of the Monkey. Some are opting for electronic fireworks—all the noise and sparks without the choking smoke. And while ringing in the new year without the real thing may make the celebration a little less festive, at least the air will be a tad more breathable.

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