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China Starts To Come Clean On Pollution That's Killing Its City Dwellers

Trouble in the Beijing air
Trouble in the Beijing air

BEIJING - At least 8,572 premature deaths occurred in four major Chinese cities in 2012 due to the high levels of fine particle pollution.

This was the conclusion of a joint study called PM2.5: Measuring The Human Health And Economic Impacts On China's Largest Cities carried out by Greenpeace and Peking University. Apart from the human cost, this pollution has caused a total economic loss of 6.8 billion RMB ($1.08 billion).

The report is based on PM2.5 monitoring data and the number of death related to the respiratory system or circulatory system diseases collected in Beijing (Northern China), Shanghai (Eastern China), Guangzhou (Southern China) and Xian (Western China).

PM2.5 refers to fine particulate matter. With an aerodynamic diameter less than 2.5 micrometers, these fine particles lodge in the lungs and are absorbed into the heart, blood and blood vessels. This can lead to heart, brain and lung diseases -- including cancer.

“The premature death that the report refers to is the excessive mortality – that is the calculation of mortality under the effects of certain factors; not the premature death in the statistical sense which signifies a death prior to reaching the average life expectancy,” explained Professor Pan Xiaochuan, from Peking University’s School of Public Health.

“According to statistics from China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP), cities in China’s Yangtze River Delta, Pearl River Delta, and Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region suffer over 100 hazy days every year, with PM2.5 concentrations two to four times above the World Health Organization guidelines,” said the report.

Greenpeace climate expert Zhou Rong said PM2.5 is putting public health at "high risk" every day. "But worse still, if we follow the current official plans we would need to wait 20 years to get to the national standard,” said Zhou.

Premature deaths

It is not the first time China has conducted such an exhaustive study on air pollution. As early as 2007, a cooperative research, called Cost Of Pollution In China, conducted by the World Bank and China’s State Environmental Protection Administration (the former incarnation of the Chinese Ministry of Environment) had already concluded that each year between 350,000 and 400,000 people die prematurely in China because of air pollution.

“But the topic was regarded as too sensitive by China’s environmental protection authority, so the report was never publicized,” a researcher who was involved in the study confirmed.

After decades of maintaining a see-no-evil stance towards pollution, and heavily criticizing the U.S. embassy for publishing daily measurements which contradicted official assurances, the fact that the Chinese authorities now accept the open discussion and publication of this report is a major step forward in official openness. It is a refreshing change from putting the blame on “fog” or “dust from Mongolia.”

Greenpeace recommends that Chinese authorities launch a major initiative to retro-fit existing coal-fired power plants with de-NOx de-polluting equipment, to shut down inefficient coal-fired industrial boilers, and cap regional coal consumption as much as possible. With China sitting on the world’s third largest reserves of coal, it is not sure when such a plan will be implemented.

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Society

Parenthood And The Pressure Of Always Having To Be Doing Better

As a father myself, I'm now better able to understand the pressures my own dad faced. It's helped me face my own internal demands to constantly be more productive and do better.

Photo of a father with a son on his shoulders

Father and son in the streets of Madrid, Spain

Ignacio Pereyra*

-Essay-

When I was a child — I must have been around eight or so — whenever we headed with my mom and grandma to my aunt's country house in Don Torcuato, outside of Buenos Aires, there was the joy of summer plans. Spending the day outdoors, playing soccer in the field, being in the swimming pool and eating delicious food.

But when I focus on the moment, something like a painful thorn appears in the background: from the back window of the car I see my dad standing on the sidewalk waving us goodbye. Sometimes he would stay at home. “I have to work” was the line he used.

Maybe one of my older siblings would also stay behind with him, but I'm sure there were no children left around because we were all enthusiastic about going to my aunt’s. For a long time in his life, for my old man, those summer days must have been the closest he came to being alone, in silence (which he liked so much) and in calm, considering that he was the father of seven. But I can only see this and say it out loud today.

Over the years, the scene repeated itself: the destination changed — it could be a birthday or a family reunion. The thorn was no longer invisible but began to be uncomfortable as, being older, my interpretation of the events changed. When words were absent, I started to guess what might be happening — and we know how random guessing can be.

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