Pollution curbs can 'prevent 3m early deaths in China'

Study of Chinese cities shows link between premature deaths and fine particle pollution

PARIS • China can avoid three million premature deaths each year if it slashes a type of fine particle air pollution to levels recommended by the UN, a study said yesterday.

The average daily particle concentration in 38 of China's largest cities between January 2010 and June 2013 was about 93 microgrammes per cubic m (ug/m3) of air, researchers reported in The BMJ medical journal. This was way over the World Health Organisation (WHO) standard of 20 ug/m3.

The gauge applies to so-called PM10 particles, which are less than 10 microns or 10 millionths of a metre across - several times thinner than a human hair.

Generated by the burning of coal and oil in cars and power plants, as well as forest fires, volcanic eruptions and dust storms, airborne fine particles can penetrate into the airways to cause respiratory problems. They also blacken buildings and contribute to acid rain.

More than 350,000 deaths were reported in the 38 Chinese cities chosen for the study in 31/2 years. The researchers calculated that every 10 ug/m3 rise in daily PM10 concentrations was linked to a 0.44 per cent increase in daily deaths, mainly from cardiorespiratory ailments like asthma.

People over 60 had a higher risk of death from particle pollution, and women were more affected than men, said the team.

  • 93ug/m3

    The average daily particle concentration in 38 of China's largest cities between January 2010 and June 2013.

Extrapolating to the country as a whole, China "would save three million premature deaths each year" by reducing the daily PM10 level to the WHO standard, they calculated - likely a conservative estimate.

Premature deaths are defined by researchers as people dying before reaching a certain, expected age for their peer group. Many of these deaths are considered preventable.

"Our findings suggest that adopting and enforcing tighter air quality standards in China will bring about tremendous public health benefits," said the study.

China, India, Iran and Indonesia are among the countries hardest hit by air pollution; India's capital New Delhi is known to exceed PM10 levels of 700 ug/m3.

Another important measure of air pollution is the so-called PM2.5 fine particles, with diameters of 2.5 microns or less.

They are a particular source of worry for health monitors as they are light and tiny and can reach even deeper into the lungs. The study focused on PM10 pollution.

At the opening of the annual National People's Congress on March 5, Premier Li Keqiang promised to make China's skies blue again, by attacking the three main causes of air pollution: coal burning, vehicle exhaust and industrial discharge.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 16, 2017, with the headline 'Pollution curbs can 'prevent 3m early deaths in China''. Print Edition | Subscribe