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How bad is the smog in Beijing? Consider this: Panasonic employees that are sent to work there are given wage premiums to compensate for the hazardous air. It’s called “pollution pay.”

On Thursday – but not for the first time – the air pollution level in Beijing was so high that it went off the chart.

The “chart” refers to the Air Quality Index (AQI) reported by the U.S. embassy in Beijing. Since 2008, the embassy has been measuring the levels of particulate matter known as PM2.5 in the air. Particles are produced by combustion activities and industrial processes the world over, but when those particles are below 2.5 micrometers in diameter, they can lodge deep inside human lungs and tissue and pose serious risks to human health.

In Beijing, smog containing PM2.5 is so thick and so toxic that it is literally killing residents. The Beijing office of China’s Cancer Prevention and Control Center reports that lung cancer rates have risen over 50 percent for men and women living in the city – specifically, cases of lung adenocarcinoma are on the rise, a cancer associated most often with poor air. A recent report from Tsinghua University has also linked smog to 670,000 premature deaths. In addition to the lung cancer risk, cumulative exposure to PM2.5 is causing residents to suffer strokes, coronary heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

The AQI is measured on a scale of zero to 500. An AQI measurement over 100 is considered an unhealthy level of pollution for “sensitive groups,” and an AQI above 150 is considered unhealthy for the general populace. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the average U.S. city has an AQI below 100. Last week, Beijing’s air scored above 500.

This is bad, but as Mother Jones points out, it’s not the worst China’s air has ever been. Back in 2013, Beijing’s AQI soared to 755 – air pollution 30 times worse than the World Health Organization’s recommended exposure.

By this point, China is well aware that it has a pollution problem. Prime Minister Li Keqiang has declared a “war against pollution” and President Xi Jinping has made a joint-pledge with Barack Obama to limit and then reduce its total carbon emissions. China will close 2,000 coal mines this year and will begin a nationwide cap-and-trade program in 2016. Beijing plans to close coal-fired power plants and other coal facilities in six of its capital districts by 2020.

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