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Air pollution found to slash life expectancy in China

July 8, 2013
Courtesy of MIT
and World Science staff

A­ir pol­lu­tion in the form of par­t­i­cles pro­duced by burn­ing coal can dras­tic­ally short­en lives, ac­cord­ing to a new study of Chi­na.

The re­search pro­jects that the 500 mil­lion Chin­ese who live north of the Huai Riv­er will each lose an av­er­age of five years’ life due to the ex­ten­sive use of coal to pow­er boil­ers. That’s a to­tal of 2.5 bil­lion years lost—over half the age of the Earth.

The re­search­ers found very dif­fer­ent life ex­pect­an­cy for an oth­er­wise si­m­i­lar popula­t­ion south of the riv­er, where gov­ern­ment poli­cies were less sup­port­ive of coal heat­ing.

“We can now say with more con­fi­dence that long-run ex­po­sure to pol­lu­tion, es­pe­cially par­tic­u­lates, has dra­mat­ic con­se­quenc­es for life ex­pect­an­cy,” said study co-author Mi­chael Green­stone, an econ­o­mist at the Mas­sa­chu­setts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy.

“Ever­yone un­der­stands it’s un­pleas­ant to be in a pol­lut­ed place,” he added. “But to be able to say with some pre­ci­sion what the health costs are, and what the loss of life ex­pect­an­cy is, puts a fin­er point on the im­por­tance of find­ing poli­cies that bal­ance growth with en­vi­ron­men­tal qual­ity.”

The re­search, pub­lished July 8 in the the jour­nal Pro­ceed­ings of the Na­t­ional Acad­e­my of Sci­ences, pro­poses that every tenth of a mil­li­gram of air-pol­lu­tion par­t­i­cles per cu­bic me­ter short­ens life ex­pect­an­cy at birth by three years.

In Chi­na, these lev­els were more than 4 tenths of a mil­li­gram be­tween 1981 and 2001, ac­cord­ing to Chin­ese gov­ern­ment agen­cies; state me­dia have re­ported even high­er lev­els re­cent­ly. Ci­ties in­clud­ing Bei­jing recorded lev­els of more than 7 tenths of a mil­li­gram in Jan­u­ary. These lev­els are around 10 times high­er than U.S. lev­els meas­ured in the 1990s, about 45 thou­sandths of a mil­li­gram.

Air pol­lu­tion has be­come an in­creas­ingly charged is­sue in Chi­na, spur­ring protests. Last month, Chi­na’s gov­ern­ment an­nounced in­ten­tions to adopt a se­ries of meas­ures to lim­it air pol­lu­tion.


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Air pollution in the form of particles produced by burning coal can drastically shorten lives, according to a new study of China. The research projects that the 500 million Chinese who live north of the Huai River will each lose an average of five years’ life due to the extensive use of coal to power boilers. That’s a total of 2.5 billion years lost—over half the age of the Earth. The researchers found very different life expectancy for an otherwise similar population south of the river, where government policies were less supportive of coal heating. “We can now say with more confidence that long-run exposure to pollution, especially particulates, has dramatic consequences for life expectancy,” said study co-author Michael Greenstone, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Everyone understands it’s unpleasant to be in a polluted place,” he added. “But to be able to say with some precision what the health costs are, and what the loss of life expectancy is, puts a finer point on the importance of finding policies that balance growth with environmental quality.” The research, published July 8 in the the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, proposes that every tenth of a milligram of air-pollution particles per cubic meter shortens life expectancy at birth by three years. In China, these levels were more than 4 tenths of a milligram between 1981 and 2001, according to Chinese government agencies; state media have reported even higher levels recently. Cities including Beijing recorded levels of more than 7 tenths of a milligram in January. These levels are around 10 times higher than U.S. levels measured in the 1990s—about 45 thousandths of a milligram. Air pollution has become an increasingly charged issue in China, spurring protests. Last month, China’s government announced intentions to adopt a series of measures to limit air pollution.