Air Pollution Linked to 1.2 Million Premature Deaths in China


Air Pollution Linked to 1.2 Million Premature Deaths in China
Aly Song/Reuters

Shanghai in January. Researchers said the toll from China’s pollution meant the loss of 25 million healthy years in 2010.
Published: April 1, 2013 38 Comments


BEIJING — Outdoor air pollution contributed to 1.2 million premature deaths in China in 2010, nearly 40 percent of the global total, according to a new summary of data from a scientific study on leading causes of death worldwide.

Times Topic: China
Cost of Environmental Damage in China Growing Rapidly Amid Industrialization (March 30, 2013)
As Pollution Worsens in China, Solutions Succumb to Infighting (March 22, 2013)
Chinese Editor Suspended for Article on North Korea (April 2, 2013)

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Figured another way, the researchers said, China’s toll from pollution was the loss of 25 million healthy years of life from the population.

The data on which the analysis is based was first presented in the ambitious 2010 Global Burden of Disease Study, which was published in December in The Lancet, a British medical journal. The authors decided to break out numbers for specific countries and present the findings at international conferences. The China statistics were offered at a forum in Beijing on Sunday.

“We have been rolling out the India- and China-specific numbers, as they speak more directly to national leaders than regional numbers,” said Robert O’Keefe, the vice president of the Health Effects Institute, a research organization that is helping to present the study. The organization is partly financed by the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the global motor vehicle industry.

What the researchers called “ambient particulate matter pollution” was the fourth-leading risk factor for deaths in China in 2010, behind dietary risks, high blood pressure and smoking. Air pollution ranked seventh on the worldwide list of risk factors, contributing to 3.2 million deaths in 2010.

By comparison with China, India, which also has densely populated cities grappling with similar levels of pollution, had 620,000 premature deaths in 2010 because of outdoor air pollution, the study found. That was deemed to be the sixth most common killer in South Asia.

The study was led by an institute at the University of Washington and several partner universities and institutions, including the World Health Organization.

Calculations of premature deaths because of outdoor air pollution are politically threatening in the eyes of some Chinese officials. According to news reports, Chinese officials cut out sections of a 2007 report called “Cost of Pollution in China” that discussed premature deaths. The report’s authors had concluded that 350,000 to 400,000 people die prematurely in China each year because of outdoor air pollution. The study was done by the World Bank in cooperation with the Chinese State Environmental Protection Administration, the precursor to the Ministry of Environmental Protection.

There have been other estimates of premature deaths because of air pollution. In 2011, the World Health Organization estimated that there were 1.3 million premature deaths in cities worldwide because of outdoor air pollution.

Last month, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, based in Paris, warned that “urban air pollution is set to become the top environmental cause of mortality worldwide by 2050, ahead of dirty water and lack of sanitation.” It estimated that up to 3.6 million people could end up dying prematurely from air pollution each year, mostly in China and India.

There has been growing outrage in Chinese cities over what many say are untenable levels of air pollution. Cities across the north hit record levels in January, and official Chinese newspapers ran front-page articles on the surge — what some foreigners call the “airpocalypse” — despite earlier limits on such discussion by propaganda officials.

In February, the State Council, China’s cabinet, announced a timeline for introducing new fuel standards, but state-owned oil and power companies are known to block or ignore environmental policies to save on costs.

A study released on Thursday said the growth rate of disclosure of pollution information in 113 Chinese cities had slowed. The groups doing the study, the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, based in Beijing, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, based in Washington, said that “faced with the current situation of severe air, water and soil pollution, we must make changes to pollution source information disclosure so that information is no longer patchy, out of date and difficult to obtain.”

Chinese officials have made some progress in disclosing crucial air pollution statistics. Official news reports have said 74 cities are now required to release data on levels of particulate matter 2.5 micrometers in diameter or smaller, which penetrate the body’s tissues most deeply. For years, Chinese officials had been collecting the data but refusing to release it, until they came under pressure from Chinese who saw that the United States Embassy in Beijing was measuring the levels hourly and posting the data in a Twitter feed, @BeijingAir.

Last week, an official Chinese news report said the cost of environmental degradation in China was about $230 billion in 2010, or 3.5 percent of the gross domestic product. The estimate, said to be partial, came from a research institute under the Ministry of Environmental Protection, and was three times the amount in 2004, in local currency terms. It was unclear to what extent those numbers took into account the costs of health care and premature deaths because of pollution.
A version of this article appeared in print on April 2, 2013, on page A9 of the New York edition with the headline: Early Deaths Linked to China’s Air Pollution Totaled 1.2 Million in 2010, Data Shows.



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China has been the biggest fan of America. It is more capitalist than US. It has blatantly copied everything that US did to rise as a global leader. It is facing the same problems that US faced in late 19th and early 20th century. Its time China starts copying America’s solutions to environmental problems. As for India, it looks more towards UK and Europe for inspiration and development, and can get some clues from the Brits to clean up the environment. Maybe India can outsource this job to the Brits, and improve UK’s unemployment problem.
April 3, 2013 at 12:48 p.m.

The harsh reality of Newton’s 3rd Law of Physics is now coming to bare “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”

American business wasn’t just exporting our jobs to China and China was getting more then just dollars from America in exchange for selling us ship loads of cheap goods.

China’s anything goes economy with little or no regulation meant we were also sending them our pollution and toxic waste as they became our new dumping ground for the by products of mindless consumption. They are now learning the hard way with 1 million people dead and who knows how many millions more sick and dying from an industrial policy based on unbridled exploitation of workers, and the environment.

Let this be a lesson to the mindless Republicans who think we need less government regulation Left to their own devices Corporate America would destroy the world if they thought they could make a profit from it.

Time for someone to also let the American People know there is no free ride. The train carrying the tooth fairy of no consequences to unbridled consumption left the station a long time ago.
April 3, 2013 at 10:05 a.m.
Highland Park, NJ

So many comments point out this is the price of consumer goods, blaming AMerican consumers. Yet, as manufacturing has left the United States job opportunities have decreased and wages declined, leaving many American workers more financially strapped and reliant on the ‘deals’ at retailers like Walmart and Target in order to maintain their standard of living. In part, what we need are real standards for trade that end a vicious cycle that encourages manufacturers to move to China and encourages American consumers to ignore the true costs of their shopping habits. This alone is not enough, but it would help.
April 3, 2013 at 9:31 a.m.
Princeton, NJ

People can complain all they want about burdensome environmental, health, safety and labor regulations in the U.S., but we undeniably have a better quality of life as a result, and we’re at least 50 years ahead of China and India on public health policies.

China has a choice. It can either do what we’ve been doing and do it fast, or die. If it chooses the former, then its cost advantages over us will disappear as it spends money on public health. If it chooses the latter, it’ll also lose its competitive advantage, to say the least.
April 3, 2013 at 8:25 a.m.

Alternative choice is to allow those who are ill to suffer and die.
April 3, 2013 at 9:31 a.m.

All nations need to agree to safely recycle 100% of their human-generated waste materials. Then pollution will disappear. We have the technology, but so far, not the will.
April 3, 2013 at 7:40 a.m.

Really??? Just which countries would go first, and what makes you think that we have the “tech”??
April 3, 2013 at 9:31 a.m.
Santa Fe, NM

China is on track to kill more people than any gulag. They do not care for the health and safety of their own people and they are very careless about polluting the rest of the world with their effluent. They have demonstrated that short-term commercial success, much of it in the hands of military and state control, is the dominant driving force.
China is the Dynasty of Pollution for air, water, land and even space. When a Billion Chinese start their SUVs in the morning, the Northern Hemisphere will die of exphyxiation. This is NOT just a threat to the Chinese people. Play this forward and we will all need a new home planet.
April 3, 2013 at 6:54 a.m.
New York

Having lived in China from 2001 to 2004, I was shocked that the pollution had become so bad so quickly in the space of only eight years when I visited there last summer. To give an idea of how bad things are, I was regularly able to see the sky when I lived in Jiangsu province in 2003 and 2004, but not so last year. I was shocked in 2004, when I visited the notoriously polluted northwestern city of Lanzhou because I hadn’t seen pollution that bad before; but last year, cities on the east coast like Shanghai, Suzhou and Nanjing had even worse pollution – bad enough that I could smell it.
April 3, 2013 at 6:35 a.m.
Cary, NC
NYT Pick

I had the good fortune to interact with several eminent traditional Chinese physicians.

The ones I met were first rate clinicians and very knowledgable.

We could stand to learn much from them.

To a man (all were men) they were appalled by the state of China’s air quality problems and how the polluted air was killing their patients.

They do not claim to convey immortality on their patients nor do they claim to be able to cure illnesses produced by China’s filthy air.

I found them to be wise, caring and competent – just like our own best doctors.

They were also highly receptive to sharing their knowledge and skill base with us.

Of course they were somewhat constrained in what they could say about China’s economic and political policies that lead to environmental and public health catastrophies such as the unbreathable air.

But they made it quite clear that they and we were ‘on the same page’ about the health effects of those policies.
April 3, 2013 at 6:14 a.m.
Steve Singer

Yes, because if they traveled to Beijing and demonstrated publicly in front of the Great Hall of the People or in Tiananmen Square, they’d be surrounded by paramilitary police directed by Ministry of State Security officers, dragged to waiting buses and driven to Jiujingzhuang Reception Center south of Beijing. Given their social prominence, they’d be confined to this “reception center” (think, “concentration camp”) for many days, even weeks, held as political prisoners. Crammed into small cells without enough space to lie down except in shifts; periodically, dragged to another cell and interrogated. Techniques might include sleep deprivation, being beaten while blindfolded, suspended from a ceiling hook by handcuffs; whatever the MSS agents in charge thought appropriate.

After signing forced confessions they’d be handed over to what passes for a judicial system for trial, charged with anything from simple hooliganism to outright counter-revolutionary activity against the socialist system itself. Conviction for hooliganism might land them in a reform camp for five years. Because counter-revolutionary activity is equated with treason they might be sentenced to death, their families billed for the cost of the bullets. The Ministry of Justice informs its judges as to the desired verdict and sentence before the show trial begins.

This is the political system we do business with, that poisons its people day-in, day-out — its people, the biosphere, the rest of the world.
April 3, 2013 at 11:58 a.m.
Daniel Jost
Zurich, Switzerland

Good – natural control of overpopulation!
April 3, 2013 at 5:47 a.m.

I lived in China for a decade, and remember SARS, fake milk and eggs, bird ‘flu and other assorted health plagues. The regime was happy to keep such information as could save the population state secrets; clearly it is happier to allow its subjects to die than to inconvenience its continued unaccountable rule. I hardly doubt any of its leadership is too troubled by these findings.
April 3, 2013 at 4:54 a.m.

The air pollution in India is getting worse too – > 600,000 premature deaths- about 50% of China. When I visited Chennai in October 2011, I was hospitalized for eight days due to breathing problems related to pollution. People with any lung condition should take proper precautions when they travel in China, India and other developing countries. Breathing air of poor quality makes you ill and robs your vacation and your wallet. China and India, to a lesser extent, are gloating in their economic boom now but they should address their air pollution issues if they want to sustain their economic boom.
April 3, 2013 at 4:06 a.m.
Jack O’Hanlon
Salt Lake City

If you have a lung condition the precaution you take is to not travel to India or China, as you’ll have to pass through major cities even if you head out into the countryside.
April 3, 2013 at 4:24 a.m.
New York, NY

Good! That’s 1.2M Chinese that won’t be buying Ivory or Shark Fin soup or powdered Rhino horn that is devastating species around the globe. China’s horrible, egregious, murderous spree of killing around the Planet for wholly unneeded “luxuries” MUST stop and, quite frankly, is sufficient reason to declare War and wipe it clean. I’ve never seen a more frighteningly ignorant and willfully destructive People on this Planet. Hey China- when you DO run out of Fresh Water in 15 years, don’t bother asking for any from the U.S. – you deserve to join all the species you’ve slaughtered.
April 3, 2013 at 4:03 a.m.
steve hunter

Wars have always been a cruel form of population control now we humans have added pollution to our arsenal.
April 3, 2013 at 2:31 a.m.
Cary, NC

I enjoyed the privilege of spending time in China in 1980 when the air was even worse than it is now.

After nearly a month of breathing East China’s gray air I ‘acquired’ a case of ‘Chinese Pneumonia’ that compelled me to return home to California.

The infection was so virulent that it baffled my physicians at University of California for 4 months until they could eradicate it.

Even as a lifelong non smoker I have required asthma medication ever since!

Does China have air quality problems?

That’s a mild understatement.

Economic progress notwithstanding China will never become a ‘developed nation’ until they take their environmental problems seriously and align their values, goals and practices with sustainable growth and take their public health problems to heart.

China’s missteps provide an object lesson in what will happen in the U.S. unless we cease placing short-term corporate profits ahead of long-term, supportable growth that respects our long-term needs.

Let’s NOT emulate China’s greed-driven policies in our plans for growth.

Despite our Gordon Gekkos who set corporate policy and the politicos who aid and abet them greed is ultimately not good for anyone.

Politicians, do you read me?

Mark Gary Blumenthal, MD, MPH
Cary, NC
April 3, 2013 at 2:31 a.m.
Jack O’Hanlon
Salt Lake City

I gather the “traditional” much vaunted Chinese natural medicine approach doesn’t stop people from dying from air pollution?
April 3, 2013 at 4:24 a.m.
j. von hettlingen

It’s tragic that the physically weak are being robbed of their lives, due to environmental reasons.
If we can send a rover to Mars to collect data on this planet, why can’t we invent a vacuum cleaner to absorb smog or a device to break down air pollutants?
April 3, 2013 at 2:11 a.m.
Highland Park, NJ

There’s plenty of ways to clean China’s air without inventing new technology. Just lack of will.
April 3, 2013 at 8:44 a.m.

We can but it costs a lot of money and uses a lot of energy. Nobody wants to pay the price especially China.
April 3, 2013 at 9:31 a.m.
Jack O’Hanlon
Salt Lake City

Yesterday, the Times ran an op-ed about tar sands mining in Alberta, Canada where the writer, a Canadian, pointed out the massive environmental ills of the practice and discussed the proposed Keystone Pipeline to move the sludge through the United States to the Gulf Coast where it can then be shipped to – China.

The tar sands piece and this article go hand in hand. If and when China gets its hands on the “bitumen” and starts burning that, their pollution will only become more deadly.

Please don’t forget – the air over China eventually finds its way into global distribution, in case anyone thinks it’s just China’s problem.
April 3, 2013 at 1:57 a.m.

Well just what do you propose to do about it? Start a war with China? Start a trade war with them? Convince folks not to buy from them? None of the above is the answer!! Simple!!
April 3, 2013 at 9:31 a.m.

Pollution is only going to rise with the planned new western Chinese cities. In an effort to spread its increasingly skewed young male population west, away from the urban coast, China has designed a dozen new cities to sprout from the dust. Problem is, the soil in many parts of western China is so friable that digging and earth-moving will raise enormous dust clouds surpassing all historic ones.

Prevailing winds tend to move this dust to the northeast, straight to Beijing and other large cities.

While the new west will see male-skewed boomtowns with their attendant violence, the east will be scoured with dust. That dust will block the sun, pick up atmospheric pollutants, and land in people’s lungs and eyes.

The central planning of these new boomtowns has less to do with supplying the West than with managing a young male-skewed population (due to sex-selective abortion, which is on the increase all over Asia, especially in Muslim-majority former SSRs.) No nation in the world could afford 32 million excess men in a standing army/police force. One solution is thus to remove them from commercial and political centers by sending them west. Unfortunately, the environmental degradation, and the resultant huge pain footprint, are inevitable.

If China really wants to plan ahead, it will ban the abortion of healthy female fetuses. That will not solve the problem of the next twenty years, but it is a start.
April 3, 2013 at 1:31 a.m.

One would expect the autocratic Chinese Technocracy to be intelligent and pragmatic enough to realize the abyss that they are heading into, both in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and raw pollutants in the air, soil and water.

So far, it seems that even the all-powerful Technocrats of the supreme politburo have been extremely timid in their response to a crysis that is destroying primarily their own country, their own children’s future.

I hope they wake up and take decisive action to end this madness and move to an economic model based on environmental preservation and sustainable energy.

For once, let the decisional power of a dictatorship be used for good. Otherwise, it’s curtains for China first, and planet Earth second.
April 3, 2013 at 1:28 a.m.
Boston, MA

CORRECTION of earlier post.

In pointing out that the Chinese pollution and the resulting deaths are to a big extend generated to provide the Americans with cheap consumer goods made in China I got the numbers and concept wrong.

I checked the Opinion piece by Jared Diamond on Jan 2 2008…
In that articles it states that the American consumption factor is 11 times bigger than in China.

A huge % of what is produced in China is exported to the US and given how little the Chinese consume per capita compered to the US the original point that the Chinese sacrifice their lives and health to satisfy the American consumer’s need for cheap products still stands. So while the point I made that real cost of cheap products in the US includes the pollution in China the numbers that I referenced were misconstrued by faulty memory of an article written more than five years ago.
April 3, 2013 at 12:47 a.m.

While this is correct China is not forced to do this and could easily (if they wished) stop. That would mean they stay poor and rural, not happening.
April 3, 2013 at 9:31 a.m.
Patrick kabasele
New York City

Thank you for this great piece! Last year while in Wuhan for business, we were blanketed for weeks by a mysterious thick yellowish cloud, to this day no government or health official gave adequate explanation for what it was. I am glad the Chinese government has made changes, albeit tepid, and is now reporting pollution levels but it needs to do more! Particularly when it comes to helping those who are poor and already sick, by giving access or making investment in better healthcare.

In my experience the wait to be seen in a Chinese hospital is at least 3 hours – on a good day, and the quality of care leaves a lot to be desire. Between factory emissions, vehicle exhausts, an alarming number of cigarette smoker(young and old), contaminated food, polluted water, dead pigs floating on rivers, it’s a surprise this is not a much bigger issues with Chinese. If only environmental and food safety inspectors were as effective as censors.
April 2, 2013 at 11:46 p.m.
Rex Cheung
Philadelphia, USA

1.2 million Chinese people died from air pollution, not counting those from water and soil pollution. PRC continues to put profiteering first. President Xi pocketed hundred of millions of dollars (NYT) as vice president, and sent his daughter to Harvard. Bo Xilai sent his son to Harvard also using his graft. Wen Jiabao and his family lined their pockets with 2.7 billions and banned NYT for reporting it. They are callous to Chinese and brazen to foreigners. FBI are investigating the death of an American Shane Todd (NYT) for knowing too much about Huawei. PRC’s proxy North Korea has today reactivated their nuclear reactor to make nuclear bombs. Radioactive materials may also be used to poison opponents home or abroad. NYT reported possible radioactive poisoning of Russian expatriates. Dirty bombs are smaller but could be devastating. PRC has hacked everyone in U.S. However, more dangerous are the zombies spies. They have access to these materials and yearn for their native country. They return home frequently only back here to do harm (“The Haunted Land: Facing Europe’s Ghosts After Communism “). We are at a crossroad with NK again (“Truman and MacArthur: Policy, Politics, and the Hunger for Honor and Renown”). JFK learned from missile crisis communists only understand strength (“Listening In: The Secret White House Recordings of John F. Kennedy”). U.S is rightly vigilant about PRC’s proxy NK’s threats. Do not trust regimes that stamp on human rights of their own common people.
April 2, 2013 at 11:35 p.m.

And to put the numbers yet another way 1.2 million is .1% of China’s population.
April 2, 2013 at 11:34 p.m.
Steve Singer

True. But all that really means is when the cancer mega-wave finally hits in full force — perhaps a decade from now — the public health service inside China will crumble beneath the strain. Even with its less-expensive and wasteful structure the amount of money required to treat tens of millions of new cancer patients every year will gut their economy. Its impact will resemble a major war, rendering today’s prosperity temporary.

I suspect this is one reason why the upper levels of China’s financial and political elites are distancing themselves from China by investing overseas, and buying estates elsewhere.
April 3, 2013 at 1:19 a.m.

Many readers appear to missed the word – PREMATURE. The 1.2 million is not the total cost of air pollution. It does not include adult casualties/victims who have their lives cut short because air pollutions.
April 3, 2013 at 2:51 a.m.

The air pollution results from using fossil fuels. In contrast, waste from nuclear power plants is very carefully controlled and substantial efforts are made to prevent its release to the environment. China’s situation shows why we should be pursuing low carbon energy sources such as wind, solar, and new, modern nuclear power plants. Of course, air pollution is only one consequence of continued reliance on fossil fuels. Another is climate change. Its impacts may make air pollution seem like only an inconvenience.
April 2, 2013 at 11:07 p.m.
East of Seoul

When is China going to stop playing the whipping boy as the world’s factory? Pollution industry is like the medieval Ship of Fools that European cities sent floating outside their sphere of sanity (sanitation). Humanity is bound to pass the buck on and on until it salvages some of its rational sentiment.
April 2, 2013 at 11:07 p.m.
Steve Singer

The report actually points out some inconvenient truths somewhat different from those you suppose, and has nothing to do with your somewhat nebulous apologia for what is, let’s face it, the environmental insanity of China and India.

The impact on human, animal and plant health from the avalanche of waste we euphemistically label “pollution” is acute and immediate, because air pollution doesn’t stay airborne very long. It precipitates — in water, should it hydrolyze in the atmosphere; returns to Terra Firma as rain, either a component (dissolved in liquid water) or a granule trapped within a water droplet itself (a grain of dust). It poisons the biosphere. Poisons concentrate in the aquatic food-chain and in the soil in which China grows grain and other foodstuffs. Homo Sapiens being at the top of the food chain, the ultimate victims are the Chinese people themselves. Poisons taint the flesh of chickens and ducks fed grain and drink polluted water. It’s in your fish; in noodles; steamed vegetables; fruit, candy.

What China is doing to itself is suicidal, but in some ways that’s the least of it. Napoleon’s famous warning, “Let China sleep, for when she wakes the world will tremble”, delivered two centuries ago, was absolutely prescient. China isn’t merely devouring its own children. Given the vast scale of its pollution and environmental destructiveness overseas (in Africa especially) China is destroying the biosphere worldwide; a greed-driven crime without precedent.
April 3, 2013 at 12:03 a.m.
Boston, MA

This 1.2 million is part of the real cost of the “inexpensive” products that you get in your local Walmart and other such stores.

I hope the American consumers greatly appreciates these sacrifices of the Chinese workers to satisfy our need for cheap “goods”. In case you forgot Americans consume 16 times more Chinese made products (in dollars) than the Chinese do (as reported a couple of years ago in the New York Times Opinion page.)
April 2, 2013 at 10:53 p.m.

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