National Geographic Daily News
Photo of pollution over an industrial area of  Huaxi village, at Jiangsu province.

Pollution is seen hovering over an industrial area of Huaxi village in Jiangsu province. The dense pollution is being blamed in an eight-year-old girl's diagnosis of lung cancer.

Photograph by Carlos Barria, Reuters

Susan Brink

for National Geographic

Published November 8, 2013

An eight-year-old girl, living near a major road in the Jiangsu Province of Eastern China, has become the youngest person in China, and possibly in the world, to be diagnosed with lung cancer caused by pollution—the cause of her disease according to Chinese officials. And last month, the World Health Organization classified air pollution as a major human carcinogen.

We talked with C. Arden Pope, economics professor at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. His research into the effects of air pollution on human health and mortality has been instrumental in establishing federal air quality regulations. He begins by saying that lung cancer in children, all but unheard of worldwide, lands in uncharted research territory.

What do we know about childhood lung cancer in China and around the world?

Nothing. I think we ought to be honest. I’m not familiar with any studies of that. In the American Cancer Society children aren’t even enrolled. I know of no lung cancer study that enrolls children. This is a very, very young lung cancer case. [Note: There have been younger children diagnosed with lung cancer linked to genetics, not pollution.]

Levels of PM2.5—microscopic particles filling the air as a result of pollution—have been shown in some industrialized areas of China to reach levels up to 40 times higher than the exposure level considered safe by the World Health Organization. What is PM2.5, why is it dangerous, and how can it lead to lung cancer?

There are lots of carcinogens emitted with industrial pollution. Our respiratory systems filter out the relatively large particles from air pollution. And they’re heavy enough to fall from the air quickly. PM2.5 is a measure of among the finest of the particles; fine enough to stay in the air for weeks. The particles are a fraction of the size of the width of a human hair. The tiny ones come nearly entirely from burning things—coal, gasoline, and diesel. Those tiny combustion particles are small enough to penetrate the lungs, and they’re made up of all sorts of nasty particles.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s standard is an annual average of 15 micrograms per cubic meter of air, though they allow for daily spikes of up to 35. How does air pollution in industrialized areas of China compare to pollution in some the “dirtiest” American cities?

We’re way better than that. Their annual average may be as much as 80 to 100 (micrograms per cubic meter of air) with Beijing sometimes peaking at 800 to 900. In the United States, a couple of decades ago in places like Pittsburgh and Los Angeles, we had places that averaged in the low 30s. The most we get now, even in our most polluted cities, is the low 20s.

You’ve researched epidemiology as well as the economics of pollution. What do we know about the economic impact of air pollution in China?

It’s very complicated. There’s no doubt that the industrial activity in China that is contributing to their economic well-being also contributes to poor health effects. The benefits [of industrialization] versus loss of health and productivity are trade-offs not fully understood. But we know from our experience in the U.S. that we get quite substantial benefits when we are able to reduce air pollution. The benefits of clean air are unbelievably high—at least two to three times the costs associated with reducing pollution.

Is there evidence of other ill health effects from air pollution?

Absolutely. Probably the strongest relationship with air pollution is cardiovascular disease; and the higher the air pollution, the greater the risk. [See related story: "Coal Burning Shortens Lives in China, New Study Shows."]

What were your thoughts when you heard of a young child with lung cancer?

It’s sad. The work I do is to compile information from lots of people, not individual cases. But any time a child has a serious disease like this, it’s sad.

25 comments
Chen Hu
Chen Hu

I do not know where this picture come from? All Chinese people know huaxi Village is China's richest village, China's average life expectancy is 75 years, the Western media, in addition to every bulge China threat theory, give a true and objective reports China? Is it hypocritical Western tradition? You can search under huaxi village pictures to look at on the web, see if you can reach huaxi village living.

Eglė Mineikaite
Eglė Mineikaite

Oh, come on..."we are much better than that.." Seriously??? Dont rush to judge China before looking at a mirror first. US is much better in this because of some "numbers". Why? Because it is smart enough to move its companies to cheap labor places like China and pollute there. Take all of those american companies back - we would read the same artical now about youngest US citizens death of the same lung cancer. Its easy to judge others when you dont think more about it. China is no better, its own economy is growing, but at the same time there are really active green movement ideas coming up aswell, plus they have to deal with international (US, EU) industrial waste aswell. And one more thing, dont forget, that US is making much more pollution than offiacials says, because of the international reglamentations there are a "number" of allowed industrial waste which they can not exceed, but what they exceed, they can sell those "numbers" to other, cleaner countries, which didnt reach they limited pollution "number", but still, everything stays in US or the same EU, even though statistics says different. So stop dumping up China and start doing things from our own countries, because they are no better as we think

Clifford Nathan
Clifford Nathan

I feel so sad reading the replies from some of the people in here.

China would have been a cleaner country should the west have kept all your filthy factories in your own country and not moved all of them there in the first place.

Now that China bear the brunt of your industrial and manufacturing needs, one turns around and slap China in the face. Talk about "used and abused".

India and Brazil will be facing this pollution issue next. China will get some of her clean air back like what Americans are enjoying now as more and more factories close in China and move to these new industrial hubs.

The REAL solution is for the world to stop consuming so much manufactured products and the factories slow down their production. Can we do that? If not, let's shut up and stop the b******* and whining and do our best to help one another.

What have those who commented negatively done for China? And soon in India, Brazil? Petition to your local government to move those factories back into your own?

I don't think so.

Andi Mikalson-Stewart
Andi Mikalson-Stewart

it is frustrating that china has let this pollution issue go on so long, despite the world telling them that it is wrong. it ultimately affects the whole world in many ways. i hope that when their clean-up efforts get truely under way it wont be too little too late

Kevin Samuels
Kevin Samuels

It's very sad that the government in China appears to be willing to sacrifice the lives of its people to compete with the United States and Russia as a superpower. Having clean air to breathe is priceless!!!

D. Perusse
D. Perusse

Some places are worse than others, but at one point or another we are all victims of cancerous pollution...

Audrey Clay-STreib
Audrey Clay-STreib

Everyone is talking about how pollution is bad and it is. STOP SAYING AND START DOING.

Dr Bob Rhoda
Dr Bob Rhoda

Ya Think?  China is bad but WHO IS GOING TO STOP THEM??!!  The Chinese government has NO concern for its people much less its children.  ANYONE who thinks China gives a FAT RAT'S FANNY about its people has never spent time in S.E. Asia.  Individual families care about their kids but the government doesn't.  There are so many people in China that killing off a few is no problem for the government. There was a joke(?) when I was young, (long, long ago), when China and Japan were at war.  It went like this:  A man from China and one from America were discussing the Sino-Japanese War.  One said "You know, the Japanese are killing off TEN Chinese for each soldier they lose".  The Chinese man replied, "By & by, No MORE JAPANESE".  I have spent time in Hong Kong and spoken with refugees who have escaped China.  Believe me, it ain't great!.

Yission Ho
Yission Ho

Scary case! Hope China Government can do something... I believe the most pollution is from car emissions and factories. Of course, switching to a new clean manufacturing system requires big money

robert brooke
robert brooke

With pollution as bad as it is in China,it seems not unlikely that other children may be diagnosed with lung cancer as a result of pollution.

俭峰 宋
俭峰 宋

What I want to say is  the America had walkded in the same way or even more serious in the past time(1940s-1950s).Do't forge the tLos angeles smog  

Alfredo Capobianco
Alfredo Capobianco

Wow, the difference in pollution level of american cities and Chinese cities is preposterous! Like, 800 to 900 in Beijing? That's pretty damn high!

Liam Walker
Liam Walker

i agree with the stop to fight pollution, but this is one death, in some towns in West Virginia almost all the deaths were related to the coal plants near by, whether its was Lung Cancer, throat cancer, black lung, most things that were related with the coal. i just think things like that should have more attention, other than just the movie Coal Country.    

Andrew Booth
Andrew Booth

So who's going to tell China to start cleaning up?

Chris Stocker
Chris Stocker

@Eglė Mineikaite

Someone is not very well informed.  Although, with cold hard facts like "dont forget, that US is making much more pollution than offiacials says" it is very hard to argue with you. 

Nate Jusko
Nate Jusko

@Eglė Mineikaite

"So stop dumping up China and start doing things from our own countries, because they are no better as we think"

I'm confused by your argument...are you saying that China is not contributing more to air pollution than the US or the EU? Or, that China is contributing more to air pollution than the US or the EU because of cheap labor? Your rant is rather poorly written, and therefore, hard to follow logically.

Jimmy Russell
Jimmy Russell

@Eglė Mineikaite we don't just move our companies there because these people are stupid and want to work for less.  they work for less because of their own government.  they can be thrown in jail for even suggesting a union.  stop blaming America for the absurdities of another government

Nate Jusko
Nate Jusko

@Clifford Nathan You're right, when the Chinese got invaded and the militaries of these developed countries forced those factories in on their land, that was an absolute travesty!

Wait a second...I don't recall other countries forcing the Chinese people or their government to open up factories...as a matter of fact, I recall decades upon decades of Chinese enthusiasm for having those factory positions moved to their land for the prospect of higher paying jobs (relative to subsistence agrarian living). I recall lines upon lines of Chinese workers showing up at the gates of these factories just for the chance of having a job at these filthy factories. I recall the Chinese government doing everything in its power, including massive currency manipulation and regional military exertion, to maintain the preeminence of their newly developed factory zones. So, if you're trying to play China off as the victim here, what sky is the world that you live on?

Daniel Cohen
Daniel Cohen

Im french and honestly i think that american are so hypocrit…

American got so much pollution issues too (they are actually 2nd in the world) and they dont do that much against too…

VeZghen Choo
VeZghen Choo

@Dr Bob Rhoda However, did you know China is one of the leaders in spending money in green technology and research? It's pretty hard to change China in one day when you have 1.4 bil people living in a country the same size of USA which has a population of just over 300mil.  China is growing faster than it is changing so everyone will have to wait for China to settle down before we can see any changes

Bob Shi
Bob Shi

@Dr Bob Rhoda very true. didn't Mao say something similar during the Korean War? or apocryphally, when US complained about human rights, China threatened to open its borders and unload TENS of millions of refugees on the US, the US got quiet all sudden like.

Nate Jusko
Nate Jusko

@俭峰 宋 False. That was the point of this article, the height of Los Angeles pollution was three decades ago, that was less than a tenth of what China is facing now. It's a whole different scale entirely.

Chris Stocker
Chris Stocker

@Nate Jusko @Clifford Nathan 

You are wasting your time Nate.  He is from China.  For all we know he is part of the problem over there.  One of these days he will hopefully open his eyes and start seeing the real.  Not the unrealistic crap his government feeds him.

Chris Stocker
Chris Stocker

@Nate Jusko @俭峰 宋 

Again Nate, you wasting your time replying to finger pointers.  People like him only want the blame shifted somewhere else.  Go figure, he is from China.  lol

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