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Choking on Costs: The Price of Air Pollution in China
Thursday, 17 January 2013 00:00  |  Written by John Marten | Blog Entry

Beijing Smog photo by Kevin DooleyFrom 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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Comments (3)add
Written by Caroline Webb , August 18, 2010
TJ - Where are the leaks that you refer to and have you done any reading at all about the state of the industry today, worldwide? Are you aware that France runs all its electricity, bar some hydropower, through nuclear and they seem quite satisfied? The waste issue is not an issue since it can all be used again to create energy and after that it is an issue only because people keep on fighting its deposition in geological structures which ain't going to move for millennia. The fighting is creating the problem, it is a political problem, not a technical problem. Facts are needed and minds need to open up otherwise environmentalists are only supporting the fossil fuel industry and creating worse climate change. It comes down to that. Read Gwyneth Cravens book: Power to Save the World, cover to cover and then see if you can make your statements stand up. They can't.
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Written by TJ , August 18, 2010
Although it is indisputable that coal is a very polluting energy, nuclear is not safe as Caroline Webb suggests. Not only is it a hazard to the environment should there be a leak, which is inevitable considering human design and management, but it creates nuclear waste which cannot be stored safely forever. It is better to cut down on our need for energy by reducing our population and going back to a simpler lifestyle more in harmony with the ecology.
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Written by Caroline Webb , August 18, 2010
Great article about a problem for human health of using fossil fuels for electricity and transportation. I hope that China builds lot of nuclear energy plants from now on because the health and safety record of this form of energy is astounding in comparison to coal. Not to mention the assault on the health of our planet's atmosphere, oceans and soils from all the coal-burning emissions. So far as baseload power is concerned, there is no real alternative to nuclear power which strongly protects the environment while delivering reliable electricity to people. Go for it China!
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The weight of our civilization has become so great, it now ranks as a global force and a significant wild card in the human future along with the Ice Ages and other vicissitudes of a volatile and changeable planetary system.- Dianne Dumanoski, Rethinking Environmentalism, December 13, 1998.  More quotes...