Chinese Air Pollution Deadliest in World, Report Says

Kevin Holden Platt in Beijing, China
for National Geographic News
July 9, 2007
China, the world's fastest growing economy, has earned another startling superlative: the highest annual incidence of premature deaths triggered by air pollution in the world, according to a new study.

A World Health Organization (WHO) report estimates that diseases triggered by indoor and outdoor air pollution kill 656,000 Chinese citizens each year, and polluted drinking water kills another 95,600. (Related: "China's Pollution Leaving Mountains High and Dry, Study Finds" [March 8, 2007].)

"Air pollution is estimated to cause approximately two million premature deaths worldwide per year," said Michal Krzyzanowski, an air quality adviser at the WHO Regional Office for Europe.

Krzyzanowski worked with WHO to look at costs and casualties of pollution across the globe. He helped the group develop new air quality guidelines that set out global goals to reduce deaths from pollution.

Deadly Air

Damaging air pollutants include sulfur dioxide, particulate matter—a mixture of extremely small particles and water droplets—ozone, and nitrogen dioxide. China accounts for roughly one-third of the global total for these pollutants, according to Krzyzanowski. (See a map of China.)

In neighboring India, air pollution is believed to cause 527,700 fatalities a year. In the United States, premature deaths from toxic air pollutants are estimated at 41,200 annually.

The combustion of fossil fuels—whether to power China's many automobiles, its burgeoning factories, or its expanding megacities—is a primary source of outdoor air pollutants.

The burning of coal or charcoal to heat homes, common throughout China, also produces a range of indoor air pollutants. (Related: "China's Boom Is Bust for Global Environment, Study Warns" [May 16, 2005].)

Air pollution can trigger or worsen a wide spectrum of respiratory and cardiovascular ailments.

WHO's air guidelines warn that pregnant women, the elderly, the sick, and young children are especially susceptible to suffering severe effects from high pollution levels.

Suppressed Information?

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.

Reducing Deaths

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.

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