City Air Makes Us Sick, Chinese Tell Doctor

RFA, 4 April 2013

Patients with respiratory ailments in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou believe that pollution-choked cities make them sick and that they only feel well when they go to the countryside, a top specialist said Thursday, following a study linking China’s air pollution to 1.2 premature deaths in one year.

“A lot of people I come into contact with say that when they go into the countryside, or a place where the air is fresher, they are in good health, but when they come back to the cities they start getting more coughs, chest pain or infections,” said Zeng Jun, who heads the respiratory diseases department at Guangzhou’s No.1 People’s Hospital.

Zeng, speaking after a report in the medical journal The Lancet showed that air pollution in Chinese cities had contributed to around 1.2 million premature deaths in 2010, said that the effects on health of China’s smog problem were well documented.

“We don’t know for sure right now whether exposure to short-term air pollution leads to greater mortality, but we have seen very clearly that air pollution causes all sorts of chronic diseases and acute episodes of those diseases,” Zeng said.

“For example, chronic lung disease, asthma, and coronary heart disease,” he said.

Atmospheric “particulate matter pollution” was the fourth-leading risk factor for deaths in China in 2010, ranking after dietary habits, high blood pressure, and smoking, according to data gathered for the 2010 Global Burden of Disease Study.

Globally, air pollution ranked seventh on the worldwide list of risk factors, contributing to 3.2 million deaths in 2010.

“The air pollution problems is extremely serious in all major Chinese cities,” Zeng said. “There is no more blue sky and clouds, and we can’t see the stars.”

“We can’t even see the sun; only the light it emits,” he said.

Bout of smog

Northern China has seen some of its worst-ever air pollution since the beginning of this year, with readings of the hazardous PM 2.5 particulate matter reaching off-the-scale levels on a number of occasions in different cities.

At one point in January, the smog stretched around 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) to the southwest, prompting flight cancellations, highway closures, and an end to sporting activities, as patients seeking help for respiratory problems clogged hospitals.

Across China, people in the worst-hit areas were advised to avoid outdoor activities and to wear protective masks.

Measures needed

Retired Shandong University professor Sun Wenguang said Chinese officials at every level needed to put in place measures to deal with air pollution.

“For example, they could reduce the proportion of coal that is used by heavy industry, and change to [other fuels],” Sun said.

“Some factories in major cities should be moved to the countryside, while cities should move away from burning coal for heating purposes,” he said.

40 percent of global total

China’s estimated 1.2 million deaths from air pollution are about 40 percent of the global total, according to the Global  Burden of Disease study.

India, by contrast, recorded around half the number of premature deaths linked to air pollution in 2010.

The study was published in December, but authors presented China-specific data at conference in Beijing on Sunday.

Robert O’Keefe, vice president of the Health Effects Institute, which is helping to present the data at seminars around the world, said they had deliberately broken out the figures per country to stir political debate.

“We have been rolling out the India- and China-specific numbers, as they speak more directly to national leaders than regional numbers,” O’Keefe said, according to Reuters news agency.

Sensitive topic

Air pollution is regarded as a sensitive political topic by Chinese officials, who reportedly censored parts of a 2007 World Bank study titled “The Cost of Pollution in China” that put the number of premature, pollution-linked deaths at 350,000-400,000 a year.

The Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) warned last month that urban air pollution is set to become the top environmental cause of mortality worldwide by 2050.

It said an estimated 3.6 million people could end up dying prematurely from air pollution each year, mostly in China and India.

Reported by Gao Shan for RFA’s Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.