A new study shows that 17 percent of all deaths in China are related to the high levels of pollution there.Berkeley Earth’s “Air Pollution Overview,” which will be published this month in the peer-reviewed scientific journal PLOS ONE, found that a third of the population of China breathes air that is “unhealthy” by U.S. standards. Air pollution has dramatic health effects, the study says, killing 1.6 million people a year.
“Air pollution is the greatest environmental disaster in the world today,” Richard Muller, scientific director of Berkeley Earth, said in a statement.
The scientists analyzed four months’ worth of hourly measurements at 1,500 points across China, specifically looking at particulate matter 2.5 microns or smaller (PM2.5), which have been associated with heart attacks, stroke, lung cancer, and asthma. Air pollution has already been found to be one of the greatest indirect health effects of global warming.
The study found that the sources of PM2.5 match those of sulfur, suggesting most of the pollution is from coal. Coal is primarily burned for electricity generation and is a leading emitter of greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide and nitrous oxides.
The world’s largest burner of coal, China’s coal consumption has grown dramatically over the past 15 years — driving 80 percent of the industry’s growth. But new efforts to reduce pollution in the country suggest that coal consumption may have peaked. China has pledged to cap coal use by 2020.
The country is well aware of its air pollution problems. Beijing and Shanghai are regularly exposed to dangerously poor air quality days. In December 2013, PM2.5 in Shanghai was almost off the charts, and officials were forced to warn people to stay inside.
“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,” Muller said in the statement.
Another study released this week found that pollution from China is traveling to the United States. In the United States, coal accounts for a third of our electricity generation but 70 percent of the sector’s greenhouse gas emissions.
“Exposure to air pollution has been directly linked to worsening respiratory disease, and not just in asthmatics,” Jeffrey Demain, director of the Allergy, Asthma & Immunology Center of Alaska, said in June. “Pollution has a direct impact, there is no question. We’re seeing a rise in childhood asthma and adult onset asthma too, and increases in COPD, which is becoming a tremendous problem in this country. People are developing it who never smoked, or never had family members who smoked.”
Pollution is traveling within China as well, the Berkeley Earth study noted. Beijing, for instance, is only a moderate source of emissions, but it is a heavily polluted area. This will make it more difficult to ensure air quality improvements before the city hosts the Olympics again in 2022, the authors said.
This is Berkeley Earth’s first published scientific study.