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Coal Cuts Life In China: 2.5 Billion Years Lost From People’s Lives

By Countercurrents.org

09 July, 2013

China's policy of giving free coal for heating to residents in an area north of the Huai River has contributed to shaving 5.5 years off life expectancy there, finds a study. Researchers estimate that the 500 million residents of northern China in the 1990s collectively lost 2.5 billion years from their lives.

The study, conducted by researchers from China, the US and Israel, finds:

Air pollution from burning coal in the area, with a population of some 500m people, was 55% higher than in the south. The region also had higher rates of heart and lung disease as a result of the policy in force up to 1980.

The researchers specifically looked at the increase in a type of pollution called total suspended particulates (TSPs) found in soot and smoke.

The study report, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, says:

"Life expectancies are about 5.5. years lower in the north owing to an increased incidence of cardio-respiratory mortality. The Huai River policy, which had the laudable goal of providing indoor heat, had disastrous consequences for health."

The study findings may help other emerging economies including Brazil or India to find better ways to combine a drive for economic growth and public health protection.

Earlier this year, the Chinese government faced a public outcry after air pollution soared past levels considered hazardous by the World Health Organization.

Julie Makinen of Los Angeles Times reports:

The research examined air-quality readings collected in 90 Chinese cities from 1981 to 2000 and compared those with mortality data collected at 145 locations across the country from 1991 to 2000.

Other studies have established strong correlations between air pollution and poor health and attempted to quantify the loss of life in China due to air pollution. But the specificity of the study may provide a jolt to policymakers and the public as debate intensifies over how much China has sacrificed to achieve rapid economic growth.

"We will never, thank goodness, have a randomized, controlled trial where we expose some people to more pollution and other people to less pollution over the course of their lifetimes," said Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Michael Greenstone, one of the authors. "It's not that the Chinese government set out to cause (a negative effect on health). This was the unintended consequence" of the policy at the time.

Greenstone and his co-authors found that north of the river, total suspended particulates, or TSPs, were over 500 micrograms per cubic meter, or 55 percent higher than levels in the south. Life expectancy in the north was 5.5 years lower - almost entirely because of higher incidences of cardiorespiratory deaths.

"It's a huge loss. Air pollution in China is really damaging people's health much more seriously than the findings in previous literature" would suggest, said Yuyu Chen of Peking University in Beijing, another author. "After this study, there should be no argument over whether we should take the air pollution issue seriously. ... We need a comprehensive clean air act in China."

Julie’s report adds:

Dirty air remains a grave concern in China. In January, a combination of windless weather, rising temperatures and emissions from coal heating brought on a prolonged spell of some of Beijing's worst air pollution on record, widely dubbed the "Airpocalypse."

From the capital to Guiyang, 1,100 miles to the southwest, the pollution closed highways, forced the cancellations of airline flights and outdoor activities, and sent countless people to hospitals.

Another spell of terrible air besieged the capital in late June. The episodes have raised debate about whether China is sacrificing too much of its citizens' health for economic growth. In recent years, environmental degradation has sparked numerous protests across the nation, and Communist Party officials are well aware that the issue could become a political crisis.

A Chicago Tribune report adds:

During the Airpoclapyse, China’s government experimented with various emergency measures, curtailing the use of official cars and ordering factories and construction sites to close.

In June, China’s State Council, or Cabinet, announced a package of 10 anti-pollution measures, including forcing heavy industries such as steel manufacturing to replace outdated technologies and publish data on pollutants.

But heavy polluters are being asked only to reduce their emissions for each unit of economic output by 30% by the end of 2017; critics say if economic growth continues to exceed 7% annually, total decreases in pollution will be small.






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