Special Reports
Chinese Air Pollution Deadliest in World, Report

By Kevin Holden
National Geographic News
July 9, 2007

China, the world's fastest growing economy, has earned another
startling superlative: the highest annual incidence of premature
deaths triggered by air pollution in the world, according to a new study.

A World Health Organization (WHO) report estimates that diseases
triggered by indoor and outdoor air pollution kill 656,000 Chinese
citizens each year, and polluted drinking water kills another
95,600. (Related: "China's Pollution Leaving Mountains High and Dry,
Study Finds" [March 8, 2007].)

"Air pollution is estimated to cause approximately two million
premature deaths worldwide per year," said Michal Krzyzanowski, an
air quality adviser at the WHO Regional Office for Europe.
Krzyzanowski worked with WHO to look at costs and casualties of
pollution across the globe. He helped the group develop new air
quality guidelines that set out global goals to reduce deaths from pollution.

Deadly Air

Damaging air pollutants include sulfur dioxide, particulate matter—a
mixture of extremely small particles and water droplets—ozone, and
nitrogen dioxide. China accounts for roughly one-third of the global
total for these pollutants, according to Krzyzanowski. (See a map of

In neighboring India, air pollution is believed to cause 527,700
fatalities a year. In the United States, premature deaths from toxic
air pollutants are estimated at 41,200 annually.

The combustion of fossil fuels—whether to power China's many
automobiles, its burgeoning factories, or its expanding
megacities—is a primary source of outdoor air pollutants.

The burning of coal or charcoal to heat homes, common throughout
China, also produces a range of indoor air pollutants. (Related:
"China's Boom Is Bust for Global Environment, Study Warns" [May 16, 2005].)

Air pollution can trigger or worsen a wide spectrum of respiratory
and cardiovascular ailments.

WHO's air guidelines warn that pregnant women, the elderly, the
sick, and young children are especially susceptible to suffering
severe effects from high pollution levels.

The total number of Chinese whose lives are cut short by
pollution-triggered diseases aligns closely with the figures that
were reportedly left out of a recent World Bank study.
China's State Environmental Protection Agency engineered the removal
of the statistics, the Financial Times reported, because the
government feared the figures could trigger social unrest.

The World Bank is perceived as a staunch ally to China. The
organization has committed roughly 40 billion U.S. dollars, along
with expert advice, to projects ranging from rural poverty
alleviation to promoting sustainable development.

Yet Internet access to certain World Bank reports on China is now
being blocked in Beijing.

An official at the World Bank's headquarters in Washington,
D.C.—speaking anonymously for fear of worsening the controversy—said
the World Bank is still holding talks with the Chinese government on
the final version of the pollution risk report, which is set to be
published soon.

"After the [state environmental protection] agency raised questions
about our methodology in calculating them, figures on the likely
number of deaths per year related to air and water pollution were
not included in the draft report—but remain under discussion for the
final report," the bank official said.

Reducing Deaths

WHO leaders, meanwhile, say that meeting new targets on clean air,
developed in consultation with 80 environmental health experts
across the globe, would drastically curtail the number of Chinese
pollution deaths.

"The air quality guidelines for the first time address all regions
of the world and provide uniform targets for air quality," said
WHO's Krzyzanowski.

"These targets are far tougher than the national standards currently
applied in many parts of the world—and in some cities would mean
reducing current pollution levels by more than three-fold," he added.

Chen Bingheng, a member of the WHO six-country steering committee
that developed the new guidelines, said she was recently invited to
explain them to leaders of China's environmental protection agency.

Yet Chen, a professor at Fudan University's School of Public Health
in Shanghai, added that the guidelines are not legally binding. WHO
member states, including China, are free to set their own national

Still, the Chinese capital has a massive incentive to improve air
quality for the smog-smothered masses: Beijing pledged to present
pristine skies, waterways, and cityscapes during its bid to host the
2008 Olympics.


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