In recent decades the detrimental effects of air and water pollution have been felt the world over. But nowhere in the world has been affected by pollution as much as China. China is now the second largest economy in the world and the worlds biggest polluter. This accolade was gained through a complete disregard for environmental quality and a drive for economic growth. Substantial economic growth has been achieved since 1978 which is a quite a feat.
One city that has felt the full effects of Chinese industrial pollution is Linfen in South-Western Shanxi province, home to 4 million people. A thick smog reminiscent of Victorian London permanently hangs over the city.
A large proportion of the people living here are suffering from various ailments such as high blood pressure, lung problems, heart disease, emphysema and pesticide poisoning. These illnesses are directly linked to air and water pollution experienced in Linfen. A day spent in Linfen breathing in the toxic chemicals is the equivalent to smoking 3 packs of cigarettes. This goes to show how bad the air quality is and also shows why there are so many illnesses in Linfen linked to air pollution. Reporter David Fineberg for VICE Media stated that after a week in Linfen his eyes stung and the inside of his nose had turned black with the dust emitted from the factories (VICE, 2014). These environmental conditions cause serious problems for the elderly and pregnant women who are most vulnerable to the chemicals and toxins in the air and water. Birth defects are commonly linked to pesticide poisoning in mothers which is a common issue here.
Shanxi province is the centre of Chinas coal industry, there are national mines there which supply Eastern China with coal for its fossil fuel dependant economy. Coal trucks clog the streets and motorways in Shanxi province causing congestion and further air pollution. In 2006 the World Bank dubbed Linfen as the dirtiest place in the world which goes to show the magnitude of the problem the city faces. This isn’t the only case of dirty cities in China, 70% of Chinas cities can’t meet air quality standards. Another point is that out of the 20 most polluted cities in the world, 16 of them are in China (Impact Lab, 2014)
Believe it or not, agriculture exists in Linfen. It is a source of income for many poor families in the area who do not work in the factories or mines. The crops harvested contain harmful chemicals and toxins from the air and the water which calls into question the risks of eating local produce. Dust from vehicles and the factories coats the crops in a black soot. The Fen river is heavily polluted with the waste products of the factories dotted along the river. Other rivers in China such as the Yangtze River flows through Nanjing and Chongqing act as waste dumps for factories. The water quality in the Yangtze and Yellow River is so bad that it’s unsafe for drinking. This brings the worrying prospect of water insecurity into light in China. When all the rivers are polluted, undrinkable and dams drained where is China going to get its water?
This simply goes to show the drive for economic superiority in China at the expense of the livelihoods of the environment and the people of China. Cities
Impact Lab (2014) “The World’s Top 20 Most Polluted Cities” at www.impactlab.net/2006/06/12/the-worlds-top-20-most-polluted-cities/ accessed 13/02/14
VICE (2014) “Toxic: Linfen, China” at www.vice.com/toxic/toxic-linfen-china accessed 11/02/14
Tags: Pollution China Linfen
AIR POLLUTION IN CHINA
China's environmental protection ministry published a report in November 2010 which showed that about a third of 113 cities surveyed failed to meet national air standards last year. According to the World Bank 16 of the world’s 20 cities with the worst air are in China. According to Chinese government sources, about a fifth of urban Chinese breath heavily polluted air. Many places smell like high-sulfur coal and leaded gasoline. Only a third of the 340 Chinese cities that are monitored meet China’s own pollution standards.
China’s smog-filled cities are ringed with heavy industry, metal smelters, and coal-fired power plants, all critical to keeping the fast-growing economy going even as they spew tons of carbon, metals, gases, and soot into the air. The air pollution and smog in Beijing and Shanghai are sometimes so bad that the airports are shut down because of poor visibility. The air quality of Beijing is 16 times worse than New York City. Sometimes you can't even see building a few blocks away and blue sky is a rare sight. In Shanghai sometimes you can't see the street from the 5th floor window. Fresh air tours to the countryside are very popular.
Only 1 percent of the China’s 560 million city dwellers breath air considered safe by European Union standards according to a World Bank study. Air pollution is particularly bad in the rust belt areas of northeastern China. A study done by the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that the amount of airborne suspended particulates in northern China are almost 20 times what WHO considers a safe level.
Coal is the number once source of air pollution in China. China gets 80 percent of electricity and 70 percent its total energy from coal, much of it polluting high-sulphur coal. Around six million tons of coal is burned everyday to power factories, heat homes and cook meals. Expanding car ownership, heavy traffic and low-grade gasoline have made cars a leading contributor to the air pollution problem in Chinese cities.
A poll conducted by the Pew Research Center before the 2008 Olympics found that 74 percent of the Chinese interviewed said they were concerned about air pollution. Even in remote areas air pollution levels can be alarmingly high. On the nice new highway between Urumqi and Turpan in Xinjiang it s sometimes difficult to make out the wonderful scenery because brownish smoke produced by natural gas refineries and coal plants.
Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times: “In February 2013 Deutsche Bank released an analysts’ note saying that China’s current economic policies would result in an enormous surge in coal consumption and automobile sales over the next decade. “China’s air pollution will become a lot worse from the already unbearable level,” the analysts said, calling for drastic policy changes and “a strong government will to overcome the opposition from interest groups.” The report estimated that the number of passenger cars in China was on track to hit 400 million by 2030, up from 90 million now. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, March 21, 2013]
Websites and Resources
BBC air pollution Good Websites and Sources: Photo Essay on Air Pollution erenlai.com ; World Resources Report wri.org ; Blog on Pollution in Beijing pollution-china.com ; Book: The River Runs Black by Elizabeth C. Economy (Cornell, 2004) is one of the best recently-written books on China’s environmental problems. In his book China on the Edge: the Crisis of Ecology and Development in China, the Chinese intellectual He Bochun argues that in many ways China's environmental problems have already reached catastrophic levels.
On the Environment: China Environmental News Blog china-environmental-news.blogspot.com ; China.Org (Chinese Government Environmental News china.org.cn/english/environment ; New York Times Multimedia Series on Pollution in China nytimes.com ; China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) english.mep.gov.cn ; EIN News Service’s China Environment News einnews.com/china/newsfeed-china-environment Wikipedia article on Environment of China ; Wikipedia ; China Environmental Protection Foundation (a Chinese Government Organization) cepf.org.cn/cepf_english ;Global Environmental Institute (a Chinese non-profit NGO) geichina.org ; Beijing Energy Network (a Chinese grassroots environmental group) greenleapforward.com ; Greenpeace China greenpeace.org/china/en ; China Digital Times Collection of Articles chinadigitaltimes.net ; Brief History of Chinese Environment planetark.com ; Article on Wetlands Degradation library.utoronto.ca ; Useful But Dated Source List on te Environment and China newton.uor.edu ; China Environmental Forum at the Wilson Center wilsoncenter.org ; International Fund for China’s Environment ifce.org ; China Watch worldwatch.org ; China Environmental law Blog chinaenvironmentallaw.com ; World Resources Institute wri.org ; China Environmental Industry Network cein.net
air pollution Links in this Website: ENVIRONMENT IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; ENVIRONMENTAL PROBLEMS IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; GLOBAL WARMING IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; AIR POLLUTION IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; WATER POLLUTION IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; WATER SHORTAGES IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; DEFORESTATION AND DESERTIFICATION IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; GARBAGE AND RECYCLING IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ;ENVIRONMENT, GOVERNMENT POLICY AND FIGHTING POLLUTION IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; Factsanddetails.com/China ; ENVIRONMENTAL GROUPS AND PROTESTS IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; THE 2008 OLYMPICS IN BEIJING, POLLUTION WEATHER Factsanddetails.com/China ; LAND AND GEOGRAPHY OF CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; WEATHER IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; DAMS AND HYDRO POWER IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; THREE GORGES AND THREE GORGES DAM Factsanddetails.com/China ; COAL IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; NUCLEAR POWER AND ALTERNATIVE ENERGIES Factsanddetails.com/China ; WATER IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China
Air Pollution Linked to 1.2 Million Premature Deaths in China
Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times, “Outdoor air pollution contributed to 1.2 million premature deaths in China in 2010, nearly 40 percent of the global total, according to a new summary of data from a scientific study on leading causes of death worldwide. Figured another way, the researchers said, China’s toll from pollution was the loss of 25 million healthy years of life from the population. The data on which the analysis is based was first presented in the ambitious 2010 Global Burden of Disease Study, which was published in December in The Lancet, a British medical journal.[Source: Edward Wong. New York Times, April 1, 2013]
“What the researchers called “ambient particulate matter pollution” was the fourth-leading risk factor for deaths in China in 2010, behind dietary risks, high blood pressure and smoking. Air pollution ranked seventh on the worldwide list of risk factors, contributing to 3.2 million deaths in 2010. By comparison with China, India, which also has densely populated cities grappling with similar levels of pollution, had 620,000 premature deaths in 2010 because of outdoor air pollution, the study found. That was deemed to be the sixth most common killer in South Asia. The study was led by an institute at the University of Washington and several partner universities and institutions, including the World Health Organization. ><
“Calculations of premature deaths because of outdoor air pollution are politically threatening in the eyes of some Chinese officials. According to news reports, Chinese officials cut out sections of a 2007 report called “Cost of Pollution in China” that discussed premature deaths. The report’s authors had concluded that 350,000 to 400,000 people die prematurely in China each year because of outdoor air pollution. The study was done by the World Bank in cooperation with the Chinese State Environmental Protection Administration, the precursor to the Ministry of Environmental Protection. ><
Some Chinese officials have sought to quash reports that link premature deaths to pollution. According to news reports, Chinese officials excised parts of a 2007 report called “Cost of Pollution in China” that had concluded that 350,000 to 400,000 people die prematurely in China each year because of outdoor air pollution. The study was done by the World Bank with the help of the Chinese State Environmental Protection Administration, the precursor to the Ministry of Environmental Protection. <>
Kinds of Air Pollution in China
Air pollutants include sulfates, ozone, black carbon, flu-laced desert dust and mercury. Black carbon, the soot produced by cars, stoves, factories, and crop burning and a major component of Chinese haze. The small diameter of the carbon particles means they can penetrate deep inside the lungs, providing absorption sites for secondary toxins that would otherwise be cleared. This compounds the danger, making black carbon an especially potent risk factor for lung disease and premature death.
Air pollution includes particles of soot, organic hazardous material, heavy metals, acid aerosols and dust. The smaller particles are more dangerous because they are more easily inhaled. Judged as the most dangerous for health, suspended particulates are caused mainly by coal and car exhaust. In the cities it is also caused by construction. In the spring it is caused by dust from the sand and dust storms in the Gobi.
from the Economist Particulate matter, which includes dust, soot aerosol particles less than 10 microns in size is a major source of air pollution. Particulate levels are measured in micrograms be cubic meter of air. In United States levels about 50 micrograms are considered unsafe. In Europe the levels are around 40 micrograms. In Beijing that average level is 141.
China is the world’s leading source of sulfur dioxide. Levels of the pollutant in the air are comparable to Japan in the 1970s when air pollution was a major problem there. Emissions of sulfur dioxide from coal and fuel oil can cause respiratory and cardiovascular diseases as well as acid rain. Sulfur dioxide emissions alone are though to cause damage equal to 12 percent of China’s GNP.
China’s emissions of nitrogen oxide---the main cause of urban smog---have increased 3.8 percent a year for 25 years. Unless things are dramatically changed nitrogen oxide emissions in China will double by 2020. Nitrogen oxide is released by power plants, heavy industry and cars.
Nitrogen dioxide is not a serious problem. Levels of the pollutant in China are comparable to those in Japan. Even so levels in Beijing rose 50 percent between 1996 and 2006.
There are also problems with ozone and paticulates measuring more than 2.5 microns. Ozone forms when nitrogen oxides combine with hydrocarbons emitted by vehicles and refineries. It affects photosynthesis. High ozone levels recorded in the lower Yangtze basin are thought to be linked o crops yields that are 25 percent lower than those in unpolluted areas.
PM 2.5 Fine Particulate Pollution and China
Sharon Lafraniere wrote in the New York Times: “The most pernicious measure of urban air pollution---particulates 2.5 microns in diameter or less, or PM 2.5---are among the most hazardous because they easily penetrate lungs and enter the bloodstream. Caused by dust or emissions from vehicles, coal combustion, factories and construction sites, the particles increases the risk of cardiovascular ailments, respiratory disease and lung cancer if people are chronically exposed to them. Car and truck exhaust is a major source of fine particulate pollution, a particular problem in Beijing, where the number of registered cars has skyrocketed from to 5 million in 2011 from 3.5 million in 2008.
The Chinese government has monitored exposure levels in 20 cities and 14 other sites, reportedly for as long as five years, but has kept the data secret. In the summer of 2010 it sought to silence the American Embassy in Beijing as well, arguing that American officials had insulted the Chinese government by posting readings from the PM 2.5 monitor could lead to “social consequences” in China and asked the embassy to restrict access to it. The embassy refused, and Chinese citizens now translate and disseminate the readings widely.
While China has made gains on some other airborne toxins, the PM 2.5 data is far from reassuring in a country that annually has hundreds of thousands of premature deaths related to air pollution. In an unreleased December report relying on government data, the World Bank said average annual PM 2.5 concentrations in northern Chinese cities exceeded American limits by five to six times as much, and two to four times as much in southern Chinese cities. Nine of 13 major cities failed more than half the time to meet even the initial annual mean target for developing countries set by the World Health Organization. Environmental advocates here expect China to adopt that target as its PM 2.5 standard.
Wang Yuesi, the chief air-pollution scientist at the Institute of Atmospheric Physics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, estimated this month that Beijing needed at least 20 years to reach that goal. The embassy’s monitor showed that fine particulate concentrations over the past two years averaged nearly three times that level , and 10 times the World Health Organization’s guideline, said Steven Q. Andrews, an environmental consultant based in Beijing.
In fact, Mr. Wang told Outlook Weekly , a magazine owned by China’s official news agency, Xinhua, that Beijing’s PM 2.5 concentrations have been increasing by 3 to 4 percent annually since 1998. He said the finer particulates absorbed more light, explaining why Beijing so often is enveloped in a haze thick enough to obscure even nearby buildings. Air pollution in the city and in nearby Tianjin is so severe that “something must be done to control it,” he wrote on his blog .
Zhong Nanshan, a respiratory expert at the Chinese Academy of Engineering, told China Daily month that without intervention, PM 2.5 particulates would replace smoking as China’s top cause of lung cancer. Beijing health experts told the newspaper that while smoking rates were flat, the city’s lung-cancer rate had risen 60 percent in the past decade, probably as a result of air pollution.
PM 2.5 particles are about 1/30th the width of a human hair, and so fine that they can lodge deeply in human lungs. "The smaller the particle, the more hazardous it is for public health," Shi Yuankai, an expert with the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences Cancer Hospital, told the China Daily. Protective measures like wearing face masks barely help because the particles are too small," he said.
“Beijing officials have said that vehicle emissions account for 22 percent of the main deadly particulate matter in the air, known as PM 2.5, and another 40 percent is from coal-fired factories in Beijing and nearby provinces. In February, the Ministry of Environmental Protection issued stricter factory emissions standards for six coal-burning industries. First on the list is the power industry, which accounts for about half the coal consumption in China.[Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, March 21, 2013]
Coal, Acid Rain and Air Pollution in China
Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides are the main pollutants that cause acid rain. The former is cause when sulphur emitted from coal-fired power stations and commercial installations mixes with oxygen. The latter is produced when nitrogen emitted from vehicles and power stations and other sources combines with oxygen. Acid rain has at least one positive point. It reduces the amount of methane.
See Coal, Energy, Educationm Health...
Vaclav Smil, a Canadian expert on the Chinese environment from the University of Manitoba, told the New York Times, the Chinese “have this coal; they have to use it....Much of the coal is now coming from these very small coal mines, but there is no sorting, no cleaning or washing and this kind of coal generates a tremendous amount of pollution."
China is the world’s top producer of airborne sulfur dioxide and particulate matter from coal combustion. Chinese factories and power plants spewed out 25.5 million tons of sulphur dioxide, the chemical that causes acid ran, in 2005, up 27 percent from 2000. By contrast the United States produced about 11 million tons. Levels of sulphur dioxide emissions in China are double what are regarded safe. Coal-burring power stations and coking plants are the main sulfur dioxide producers.
One survey found that a third of mainland China is regularly soaked in acid rain and half of the cities and counties surveyed receive at least some acid rain. In some places every rainy day is an acid rain day and limestone buildings are dissolving in the acid air. The Guangdong-Guangxi-Guizhou-Sichuan basin south of the Yangtze is the largest single area in the world affected by acid rain pollution. A study in the early 2000s found that one third of crops in the Chongqing area had been damaged by acid rain. China sends some its acid rain abroad. See Below
Coal plant in Linfen
Coal and the Environment
The production of coal-fired plants has slowed to some degree. They are no longer being produced at the rate of one a week and now add 80 gigawatts of power a year, down from 100 gigawatts a few years earlier.
It is estimated that the use of cheap coal cost China $248 billion, the equivalent of 7.1 percent of GDP, in 2007 through environmental damage, strains on the health care system and manipulation of commodity prices. The figure was arrived at by the Energy Foundation and the WWF by taking into consideration things like lost income from those sickened by coal pollution.
Coal has been tied to a number of health problems. In towns like Gaojiagao in Shanxi it has been linked with a high number of birth defects such neural tube defects, additional fingers and toes, cleft pallets and congenital heart disease and mental retardation.
Coal, Underground Coal Fires and Tire Fires in China
Many places still burn large amounts of coal for heating. Coal produces thick, smoggy smoke. High sulphur coal is particularly nasty. It produces a rotten egg smell .
Underground coal fires are consuming 20 to 30 million tons of coal a year, pumping tons of ash, carbon dioxide, methane, carbon monoxide and sulfur compounds into the atmosphere. Some of the fires have been burning for centuries. By one count there are 56 underground coals fire currently burning in China. Coal fires produce huge amounts of harmful carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide. The fires produce as much carbon monoxide each year as all the cars in the United States.
A coal fire The underground coal fires are revealed by fumes and smoke that pour from cracks in the earth. The Wude coal field in Inner Mongolia, one of China’s largest coal fields, is the home of China’s largest coal fire and some argue one of the world’s worst environmental disasters. Sixteen of China’s coal fires burn here, spewing out acrid clouds of sulfur dioxide.
The fires at the Wude field are at a depth of between 110 to 220 feet. They advance about 100 feet a year. An official in charge of putting the fires at Wude told Smithsonian magazine: “An underground coal fire is like a dragon. We can sense the dragon’s tail, that is, the area already burned. But satellite images show that the hottest, densest parts are far below the surface, or the dragon’s head. We can predict the path, and prepare to chop off its head.”
Workers try to extinguish the fires by starving them of oxygen by burying them under a 3-foot-layer of dirt. Pouring water on them produces dangerous methane gas, so workers pour a water-clay slurry into cracks instead of water if a dousing strategy is employed. Even when the fires are extinguished the ground can take years to cool down.
Only 10 percent of China’s coal underground fires are being fought. They pose little immediate threat other than polluting the air in fairly remote places and cutting off access to some coal supplies. There have been some successes. In 2003, a centuries-old fire was extinguished near Urumqi after a four year battle.
In 2009, a number of coal fires, one of which had been burning for 60 years, were put out in Xinjiang. The fires, which has been caused illegal mining and spontaneous combustion, had spread to more than 900,000 square meters and consumed 10 million tons of coal a year. The fires were put out through a coordinated plan of drilling, water injection and using earth to cut off oxygen.
In Wuhan in Hubei Province old tires and asphalt are used as fuel to fire pottery kilns, creating some nasty pollution in the process.
Cement Plants and Pollution in China
Cement plants are among the biggest air pollution producers in China. They produce lots of dust in various sizes. They also need a lot of energy---heat of more than 2,600 degrees F from 400 pounds of coal for each ton of cement---to convert the limestone and other materials into the intermediate form of cement called “clinker.” Production generates huge amounts of heat that is released into the air.
To reduce coal transportation costs cement plants are often built in places that have a supply of coal nearby. Mining, coal processing and cement making produce high levels of pollution. Areas with cement plants can often be determined from many kilometers away by the grayish color of the air and the layers of dust on trees and the road.
Advanced cement plants recycle heat normally released into the air and use it to run turbines that generate electric power. The power then can be used to run the plants. These plants require 60 percent less energy, enough to cover the millions of dollars needed to build the advance plant, which take about in four years to construct. The technology for these system is supplied by the Chinese firm Dalian East Energy Development, which exports the technoloy to countries such as Vietnam, the Philippines and Pakistan and plans to use similar technology on steel plants in the future.
Health Problems and Air Pollution in China
Air pollution causes premature births, low-birth weight babies, and depresses lungs functioning in otherwise healthy people. It has also been blamed for China's rising rates of cancer. Lung cancer is now the leading cause of death in China. In the last five years the number of deaths from the disease has risen 18.5 percent to 34 per 100,000 people. Air pollution is also linked with a variety of respiratory aliments. Around some factories the asthma rate is 5 percent. It is estimated that 26 percent of all deaths in China are caused by respiratory illnesses (compared with 2 or 3 percent in the U.S.). Many people in Beijing and Shanghai get hacking coughs. In rural areas, respiratory disease is the number one killer. It is impossible to say how many are caused by air pollution though and how many are caused by smoking or some other cause.
China has the world highest number of deaths attributed to air pollution. The World Health Organization estimated in 2007 that 656,000 Chinese died prematurely each year from ailments caused by indoor and outdoor air pollution (that's like losing everybody in Wyoming every year). The World Bank placed deaths related to outdoor pollution at 350,000 to 400,000, but excised those figures from a 2007 report under government pressure.
According to Chinese government statistics 300,000 die each year from ambient air pollution, mostly from heart disease and lung cancer. An additional 110,000 die from illnesses related to indoor pollution from poorly ventilated wood and coal stoves and toxic fumes from shoddy construction material. The air pollution death figure is expect to rise to 380,000 in 2010 and 550,000 in 2020. The Chinese government has calculated that if the air quality in 210 medium and large cities were to be improved from “polluted” to “good” levels 178,000 lives could be saved.
International schools here are doming their athletic fields because pollution so often requires that students stay indoors. Washington Post writer John Pomfret was based in Beijing for many years. When his family moved to Los Angeles afterwards his son’s asthma attacks and chronic chest infections stopped. When asked why he moved to Los Angeles he jokingly said “for the air.”
It has been reasoned that all forms of air pollution are 10 times more damaging to health than all forms of water pollution. According to the World Bank and WHO between 300,000 and 350,000 people die from outdoor air pollution and about 300,000 die from inside air pollution. Some think the true figure is much higher. Some estimate that indoor air pollution kills more than 700,000 people a year. The fine particles produced by coal-fired stoves exacerbates respiratory problems and is especially damaging to children’s lungs functions.
In December 2011 Kyodo reported: Air pollution is likely a main culprit for the almost 60 percent growth in lung cancer rates in Beijing during the past decade, China's state media reported Tuesday. "Increasing air pollution might be largely blamed" for the big rise, even though the smoking rate during the period has not seen an apparent increase, Zhi Xiuyi, the head of Capital Medical University's lung cancer center, told the China Daily. The China Daily cited figures released by the Beijing Institute for Cancer Research as showing that between 2000 and 2009, instances of lung cancer in the capital rose 56 percent. Health experts warn the absorption of small particles in people's lungs poses a long-lasting health danger.[Source: Kyodo, December 6, 2011]
See Separate Article IMPACT OF CHINESE AIR POLLUTION
Coal-Related Air Pollution Linked to Lung Cancer
Nonsmoking women in an area of China’s Yunnan province die of lung cancer at a rate 20 times that of their counterparts in other regions of the country---and higher than anywhere else in the world. In a January 2010 article in the journal Environmental Science & Technology group of scientists said they had come up with a possible explanation why: the burning of coal formed during volcanic eruptions hundreds of millions of years ago. [Source: Sindya N. Bhanoo, New York Times, January 11, 2010]
Coal in Yunnan’s Xuanwei County, where the problem exists, contains high concentrations of silica, a suspected carcinogen. There is more silica in this coal than in 99.9 percent of all the samples we analyzed, said an author of the study, Robert B. Finkelman, a professor of geology at the University of Texas at Dallas. [Ibid]
Like others in rural China, the families of Xuanwei County use coal for heat and for cooking. As the coal burns, particles of silica are released with the vapor and inhaled. Women, who do the cooking, face the greatest exposure. [Ibid]
Dr. Finkelman and his colleagues found that quartz, of which silica is the primary component, made up 13.5 percent of the coal samples taken from Xuanwei County. In normal coal samples, quartz and other minerals are found only in trace amounts. The grains of quartz were so small they were only visible through an electron microscope, Dr. Finkelman said. Strikingly, the coal found in neighboring villages did not contain quartz at the same high levels or with such fine grain. [Ibid]
When the volcanic eruptions occurred 250 million years ago, they set off a mass extinction and released acid gases, leading to a variety of changes in the earth’s environment, including acid rain. Dr. Finkelman speculated that the rain might have dissolved surface rocks composed of silica, which then might have worked its way into developing formations of coal. [Ibid]
The high cancer rates in Xuanwei have attracted the attention of scientists for decades. Dr. Qing Lan, an epidemiologist at the National Cancer Institute in Rockville, Md., is completing two studies involving hundreds of women and families there. While her team is confident that coal burning is causing the high rates of cancer, they are not certain it is due to silica. [Ibid]
China Study Blames Indoor Burning for Lung Ailment
In February 2009, Reuters reported: “A study of more than 20,000 people in China has shown that exposure to burning solid fuel indoors for heat and cooking may cause the lung ailment known as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The finding, published in the European Respiratory Journal, is significant because COPD has long been associated with smoking and very little research has been done to find out why non-smokers also suffer from the disease. COPD includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Emphysema is the loss of elasticity of lung tissues, resulting in the collapse of small airways which gives rise to shortness of breath and hyperventilation. [Source: Reuters, February 18, 2009 |:|]
“The study covered 20,245 people over 40 years of age in seven Chinese cities and provinces who were interviewed about their smoking habits, family health history and exposure to smoke from solid fuels, such as wood, coal, grass and dung. Among the participants, 12,471 were non-smokers and 5.2 percent of them were diagnosed as suffering from COPD, wrote the researchers, led by Pixin Ran at the State Key Laboratory of Respiratory Disease in China's southern Guangzhou city. |:|
“After adjusting for other possible causes, including passive smoking, the Chinese researchers found that exposure to various types of smoke in the home, such as that produced by burning coal and biomass, was the leading cause of COPD in non-smokers. Around 73 percent had been exposed for at least a year to burning fuel indoors for the purpose of heating or cooking. In four out of 10 cases, kitchen ventilation was poor and both men and women were harmed, they added. |:|
“Nearly four-fifths of the non-smokers, or 78 percent, were also found to have lived with tobacco fumes. It is well known that children of smoking parents are more likely to suffer from respiratory disease as adults and the researchers said the problem will be more acute in China, where nearly 40 percent of adults smoke. "Our results can probably be applied to other developing countries, such as India and Nepal, which have a similar indoor pollution problem", wrote the researchers. They hoped a substantial number of COPD cases could be avoided through health education, better ventilation in kitchens and getting people to quit smoking. |:|
Unreliability of Chinese Pollution Data
Whether government statistics are reliable is another matter, Sharon Lafraniere wrote in the New York Times. While some argue that the release of ever more detailed data makes fudging ever harder, Mr. Andrews, the environmental researcher, contends that the government systematically manipulated data and standards to create more “blue sky” days. Although attention focuses on Beijing, at least 16 other cities are more polluted, the World Bank says. Their efforts to clean up the air are partly offset by rising populations, an avalanche of vehicles and never-ending construction.
Some experts contend that the government shies away from epidemiological studies on pollution’s health impact. “They are really unwilling to match it to the health data because that would be much more alarming,” said one specialist who spoke anonymously for fear of angering Chinese officials. “They want to get the counts down first.”
Kyodo reported: Many Beijing residents worry about discrepancies between China's official air quality readings and air testing conducted at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, which conducts its own measurements. While China's national environmental monitoring center reported that Beijing's air was slightly polluted Monday, the U.S. Embassy, which measures smaller particulates, or those less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, rated it as "hazardous.' [Source: Kyodo, December 6, 2011]
China's pollution monitors have been struggling to maintain credibility since a clear run of blue-sky days during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games when factories were forced to temporarily close and car use was severely restricted. "The government has created a story that air pollution has improved, but actually it has not," Steven Andrews, a Beijing-based environmental consultant, told Kyodo News. "China actually has stringent environmental regulations. But if they are not being followed in the capital, you can just imagine how bad it must be in other areas," he said.
The Beijing government has even criticized health experts for taking health precautions to deal with the air pollution. When an American doctor at Beijing United Family Hospital recommended this month on his blog that people wear face masks, the Communist Party-affiliated Global Times newspaper ran an article rebuking him. The newspaper quoted an anonymous doctor at Peking University People's Hospital as saying, "The suggestion to wear air masks will make trouble out of nothing, as we've had polluted air for a long time, and we shouldn't be living with an American standard." [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, October 29, 2011]
Image Sources: 1) University of Washington; 2) Impact Lab; 3,5 ) Natalie Behring, Bloomberg, Environmental News.; 4) University of Utah; 6) Environmental News; 7) David Wolman Blogspot; 8) NASA; 9) Julie Chao http://juliechao.com/pix-china.html ; You Tube
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated January 2014