A new study shows that air pollution is responsible for 17 percent of all deaths in China — an average of more than 4,000 deaths each day.
Berkeley Earth’s “Air Pollution Overview,” which will be published this month in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE, found that a third of the population of China breathes air that is “unhealthy” by U.S. and European standards. Air pollution has disastrous 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.
“When I was last in Beijing, pollution was at the hazardous level; every hour of exposure reduced my life expectancy by 20 minutes,” said Muller, underscoring the implications of living in such conditions year-round. “It’s as if every man, women, and child smoked 1.5 cigarettes each hour.”
Most of the pollution, the researchers say, comes from coal, which is a leading emitter of greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide and nitrous oxides. And while much of it is descending upon Beijing, its source is in fact industrial regions, some hundreds of miles away — and where the air quality is even worse than in the capital. But because the sources are so far-flung, the authors warn, it may be tough to reduce pollution to levels considered safe in time for the 2022 Olympics.
But the Winter Games aren’t the only problem that the rest of the world faces from China’s deadly emissions. Another study released this week found that ozone blown east from China is traveling to the United States, offsetting our own efforts to reduce that particular pollutant by as much as 43 percent.
Worldwide, about three millions deaths per year can be attributed to air pollution, including about 200,000 early deaths in the U.S. alone. Coal accounts for a third of America’s electricity generation but 70 percent of the sector’s greenhouse gas emissions. Scientists say the new renewable energy plan announced by the Obama administration earlier this month coal plants would prevent 1,500 to 3,600 premature deaths in the U.S. annually, in addition to 90,000 asthma attacks in children, 1,700 heart attacks, and 300,000 missed days of school and work.