Some people are quick to blame "China" for burning so much coal. But the average Chinese citizen has no control over the country's power supply, and he or she is the one breathing in toxic air day in, day out. So let's be careful about not blaming the victims... Slowly but surely, the average person in China is starting to make it clear what the government's priorities should be, as pollution is now the #1 cause of social unrest in the country. Things are so bad that a recent study found that life expectancy was about 5.5 years shorter in the parts of the country where coal pollution is more concentrated.
Further highlighting the urgency of the issue in China, new research from Tsinghua University found that an estimated 670,000 premature deaths from four diseases - strokes, lung cancer, coronary heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease - were linked to air pollution, especially particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 micrometres or less (a.k.a. PM 2.5). This is the class of particulate that was officially recognized as a human carcinogen last year by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, especially its link to lung cancer and a heightened risk of bladder cancer.
The Chinese study found that in 2012, more than 70 per cent of the population was exposed to annual PM 2.5 pollution levels higher than 35 micrograms per cubic metre, the country's benchmark for healthy air quality. But even that standard is pretty high compared to international limits; The World Health Organisation (WHO) sets its PM 2.5 safety limit at an annual concentration of 10mcg/cubic metre.
Estimates on the impact of air pollution in China vary. For example, a study published in The Lancet said that "outdoor air pollution contributed to 1.2 million premature deaths in China in 2010, or 40 per cent of the global total," and the former health minister Chen Zhu said this year that pollution caused 350,000 to 500,000 premature deaths a year in China.
But whatever the exact number, the total is staggering and high priority should be put on cleaning up the air that over a billion people breathe. The U.S. did it a few decades ago (how quickly people forget how bad things were), and now it's China's turn.