The total number of Chinese whose lives are cut short by pollution-triggered diseases aligns closely with the figures that were reportedly left out of a recent World Bank study.
China's State Environmental Protection Agency engineered the removal of the statistics, the Financial Times reported, because the government feared the figures could trigger social unrest.
The World Bank is perceived as a staunch ally to China. The organization has committed roughly 40 billion U.S. dollars, along with expert advice, to projects ranging from rural poverty alleviation to promoting sustainable development.
Yet Internet access to certain World Bank reports on China is now being blocked in Beijing.
An official at the World Bank's headquarters in Washington, D.C.—speaking anonymously for fear of worsening the controversy—said the World Bank is still holding talks with the Chinese government on the final version of the pollution risk report, which is set to be published soon.
"After the [state environmental protection] agency raised questions about our methodology in calculating them, figures on the likely number of deaths per year related to air and water pollution were not included in the draft report—but remain under discussion for the final report," the bank official said.
WHO leaders, meanwhile, say that meeting new targets on clean air, developed in consultation with 80 environmental health experts across the globe, would drastically curtail the number of Chinese pollution deaths.
"The air quality guidelines for the first time address all regions of the world and provide uniform targets for air quality," said WHO's Krzyzanowski.
"These targets are far tougher than the national standards currently applied in many parts of the world—and in some cities would mean reducing current pollution levels by more than three-fold," he added.
Chen Bingheng, a member of the WHO six-country steering committee that developed the new guidelines, said she was recently invited to explain them to leaders of China's environmental protection agency.
Yet Chen, a professor at Fudan University's School of Public Health in Shanghai, added that the guidelines are not legally binding. WHO member states, including China, are free to set their own national standards.
Still, the Chinese capital has a massive incentive to improve air quality for the smog-smothered masses: Beijing pledged to present pristine skies, waterways, and cityscapes during its bid to host the 2008 Olympics.
Free Email News Updates
Sign up for our Inside National Geographic newsletter. Every two weeks we'll send you our top stories and pictures (see sample).
SOURCES AND RELATED WEB SITES