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RP Siegel headshot

Air Pollution in China is Killing More Than a Million People a Year

By RP Siegel

There can be no question that the epic story of our time is our struggle to endure against the threatening demons of our own creation. In that story, China must be the sleeping giant. As the story opens, the giant awakens, searching for a way to improve the livelihood of his people, inadvertently trampling on a number of the Earth’s delicate structures in doing so. Realizing this, a second awakening occurs. But can the giant change direction quickly enough, before too much harm is done?

The damage that re-directed the giant was the realization that fossil fuel emissions, particularly from coal-fired power plants, are pushing atmospheric carbon levels to dangerously high levels. China’s emissions have grown 7 percent annually -- far faster than the rest of the world, which is growing at 2.8 percent. Now that we all realize that emissions have to start decreasing, fast, China has pledged to achieve peak emissions by 2030, after which its emissions will begin to decrease.

But another harm, more immediate and more deadly, has appeared on the scene. Air pollution levels in China have reached catastrophic proportions. According to research newly published by Berkeley Earth, air pollution kills more than 4,000 people every day in China. That’s 1.6 million people per year, a full 17 percent of deaths from all causes. This is a terrible tragedy. As much as 38 percent of China’s population live in a situation where the air quality is considered “unhealthy” by U.S. standards, based on ground-level measurements. The study maps this pollution in unprecedented detail.

The biggest culprit is particulate matter, known as PM 2.5, which refers to the size of the particles in microns. According to the U.S. EPA, PM 2.5 consists of multiple species including ammonium sulfate, ammonium nitrate, carbon and crustal materials, which are primarily soil and ash. PM 2.5 is the smallest particle size the EPA tracks, and it is the most dangerous because of its ability to penetrate the lungs and enter the bloodstream. Associated medical issues include: “decreased lung function, increased respiratory symptoms, cardiac arrythmias (heartbeat irregularities), heart attacks, hospital admissions or emergency room visits for heart or lung disease, and premature death.”

Often these particles travel long distances. This means the people being exposed are not always the ones responsible for the emissions. Beijing, for example, receives much of its pollution from industrial cities like Shijiazhuang, which is 200 miles to the southwest. The Berkeley team found that the Chinese PM 2.5 pollution levels matched those of sulfur, indicated that they originated from coal. But, that also means that efforts like those of Beijing’s mayor, who a year ago banned all coal burning in the city, will not be enough. It’s a systemic problem and must be dealt with accordingly.

"Air pollution is the greatest environmental disaster in the world today," says Richard Muller, scientific director of Berkeley Earth, coauthor of the paper. "When I was last in Beijing, pollution was at the hazardous level; every hour of exposure reduced my life expectancy by 20 minutes. It's as if every man, women, and child smoked 1.5 cigarettes each hour," he said.

According to the study authors, “worldwide air pollution kills over three million people per year – more than AIDS, malaria, diabetes or tuberculosis.”

The study found average levels of PM 2.5 in the 50 to 60 range per cubic meter of air. Compare that with the U.S., where the average levels are in the 10 to 15 range and the highest peaks, which occur in Southern California in the winter, barely reach the mid-20s.

The good news in all of this is that one solution addresses both problems: Get off of coal and switch to clean renewable fuels — the sooner the better.

Image credit: Berkeley Earth via PR Newswire

Featured image: Flickr/Global Panorama

RP Siegel headshot

RP Siegel (1952-2021), was an author and inventor who shined a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His work appeared in TriplePundit, GreenBiz, Justmeans, CSRWire, Sustainable Brands, Grist, Strategy+Business, Mechanical Engineering,  Design News, PolicyInnovations, Social Earth, Environmental Science, 3BL Media, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, Eniday, and engineering.com among others . He was the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP was a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 53 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. RP was the winner of the 2015 Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week blogging competition. RP passed away on September 30, 2021. We here at TriplePundit will always be grateful for his insight, wit and hard work.


Read more stories by RP Siegel