In China, Pollution Causes Two Birth Defects a Minute: Official

We know that China's pollution isn't good for its newborns. Recently, a government official announced that birth defects are "constantly increasing," and that every 30 seconds, a baby is born with physical defects in China.

The statistic isn't new. But the official made clear something the government has long been reluctant to say: a major cause is pollution."The number of newborns with birth defects is constantly increasing in both urban and rural areas," Jiang Fan, vice-minister of the National Population and Family Planning Commission (NPFPC), said at a conference in Beijing recently. "And the rather alarming increase has forced us to kick off a high-level prevention plan."

Her statements, reported quietly in Chinese media in early January -- and yesterday in translations of Western reports -- come only a few months after parents across China were rocked by concerns that much of the country's milk had been tainted with melamine, killing a slew of infants. With the tacit encouragement of big milk companies, the chemical had been added by middlemen and farmers as a protein substitute.

It's not surprising that coal-rich Shanxi province, a center of pollutant emissions from large-scale coal and chemical industries, has recorded the highest rate of birth defects.

In 2007, a study carried out in Taiyuan, capital of Shanxi, demonstrated that an abundance of fine particles in the air is one of the leading factors in spontaneous abortion, birth defects, and infant death.

Other research
The country's rampant air pollution is also a serious threat to pregnant women, increasing the risk of giving birth to under-weight infants and resulting in chromosomal abnormalities in fetal tissues, said studies conducted by Yale and Columbia Universities.

The report by Columbia's Center for Children's Environmental Health, released in October after a six-year study, showed that pollution from a coal-fired power plant in the central Chinese city of Chongqing affected the birth weight, height and motor development skills of babies born nearby.

Another recent study, based in Jiangsu, one of China's richest provinces, found that atmospheric pollution led to at least one-tenth of birth defects there.

The most common defects, in order of frequency, were found to be congenital heart disease, cleft palate and hydrocephalus (an excess of liquid in the brain), which according to studies is provoked by motor vehicle emissions. (Bad living habits, unbalanced nutritional diets, and old-age pregnancies are also possible factors that cause birth defects in newborns, say researchers.) Asthma is also a common threat to newborns living in polluted regions.

Larger effects
Pan Jianping, a professor of the Women and Child Health Research Office at Xi'an Jiaotong University, warned in China Daily that the increasing birth defect rate among Chinese infants would soon become a social problem, influencing "economic development and the quality of life."

"Economic pressure is very heavy for families raising babies with physical defects, particularly for those who live in poor rural areas," he said, adding that families must also cope with psychological trauma due to the social stigma attached to children born with defects.

At a time of economic concern and increasing awareness about the threat of pollution, the government appears to be at least listening to warnings like these, even if pollution from coal-fired plants remains rampant.

Killer coal
As the world's manufacturer, China still draws about 70% of its electric power from burning coal. Coal is also behind 85% of China’s sulphur dioxide emissions, 67% of its nitrogen dioxide emissions, 80% of its carbon dioxide emissions, and creates 25% of China's waste water.

A few months ago, one study observed that Chinese coal use cost the country about 7 percent of its GDP. Around the same time, Greenpeace noted that the true price of Chinese coal, taking into account its impact on the environment, should be 23 percent higher than it currently is.

"The statement from the National Population and Family Planning Commission once again proved that coal burning is not only a climate killer, but one of the major health hazards in China," Greenpeace China said in a statement released Sunday.

Some researchers have cautioned that drawing solid connections between the environment and birth defects can be tricky, and that China's "constant rise" in its rate of birth defects may have more to do with better reporting than with an actual increase.

And that could be the silver lining here: more transparent and better publicized information is crucial to raising awareness about the problem, and continuing to prompt ever antsy Beijing, and the country's multitude of local governments, to respond.

via China Daily

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Tags: China | Coal | Pollution