|Choking on Costs: The Price of Air Pollution in China|
|Thursday, 17 January 2013 00:00 | Written by John Marten | Blog Entry|
From time to time we see images of smog-smothered streets in Shanghai, Beijing and other major Chinese cities. Surely it's uncomfortable to breathe this fetid air—perhaps we even feel a sympathetic scratchiness in our throats or sting in our eyes—but how about its deleterious effects on the health of that nation and its people? And why is China having such difficulty keeping its air clean and breathable?
There was something of a flurry of concern back in the fall of 2007, following the release of World Bank statistics (pdf) that included a sum total of up to 714,000 deaths per year in China caused by air pollution and its related diseases, and many more from water pollution. Such figures would be overwhelming in nearly any other country, but with a population of 1.3 billion, it's a bit easier to cover up in China.
Economically, the study recognized that air-pollution-related health costs amounted to 3.8% of the national GDP, and if you factor in water pollution it increases to 5.8%. Interestingly, these statistics also measured 'willingness to pay' to save a life. The study estimated that Chinese communities shelled out between 250,000 to 1.7 million Yuan (or about $37,000 to $250,000 by today's exchange rates) to save one life; in the US the statistic was $0.6 million to $13.5 million, depending on the area.
With the 2008 Olympics, there was renewed concern for air quality as the international community worried about the health of athletes and visitors in the smoky climate. Beijing responded with a massive cleanup that included temporary shutdown of some factories and enforced reductions in car travel. This did help improve the air quality. Some analysts speculated it might also harm the economy. Yet, at least so far, this has not been the case—although this may be because there has been some backsliding on the environmental efforts.
Since then, most of the environmental press has been looking at the progress China is making with environmentally friendly technology and pollution controls. However, the fact remains that pollution is still a tremendous problem. A 2010 study (pdf) in the leading medical journal, The Lancet, showed that the country still averages 420,000 deaths per year from indoor air pollution—air-quality degradation in the home caused largely by cooking and heating fires. Studies in the 1980s showed that the simple addition of a chimney in many cases cut the incidence of disease in half, leading to a program to install better stoves in rural homes. However, that program ended in the mid-1990s, and since then a shift from wood to coal has made most of those safer stoves obsolete, while the new coal stoves do not vent to the outside. And outdoor air pollution still remains grim, with this study estimating 470,000 premature deaths yearly, for a combined total even higher than the earlier World Bank estimates.
This is in a country without national healthcare or a Medicare/Medicaid-style system for the needy. One often hears stories of people denied care even in emergency situations because of inability to pay the fees. Fortunately, in 2010 the Chinese government passed legislation providing some healthcare support for its people. One can only imagine the corresponding rise in pollution-related health costs (and hopefully a decline in the death rates). It’s great that the victims of air pollution now have a better chance of being treated for their illnesses. But wouldn’t it be better if China expanded its investment in environmentally sound technology, thereby reducing both indoor and outdoor air pollution and preventing these diseases?
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