An expert from China explains the dangers of air pollution to your health

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The Huai River flows from tributaries that flow into Lake Hongze in Jiangsu. It is fed by the Tongbai Mountains and Dabie Mountains in China.

The river was once a source of water for farmers on both sides, and it provided a livelihood. People today enjoy a similar quality life on each bank.

However, those living north of the river have a shorter life expectancy (up to three years) than those who live on its southern banks. Why? The result?

Professor Guojun He, his colleagues, and others discovered this when they examined the health foreign doctors in China effects of China’s Huai River Policy. Since the 1950s, the Huai River Policy has provided free or subsidized coal for residents north of the river.

The study revealed that particulate pollution was 46% higher north of the river. This resulted in a decrease of life expectancy by 3.1 years.

Pollution is a worldwide health problem. According to He’s report, 4.5 billion people are exposed worldwide to PM concentrations that are twice as high as what the World Health Organization considers safe.

He estimates that China alone could save more than 3.7 billion years of life if it adhered to its Class 1 standards for PM 10, which is particles 10 micrometres in diameter.

Here, the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology’s assistant professor of Economics, Environment and Sustainability and Social Science (HKUST) talks us through his research on China’s air quality and explains how pollution is one of our greatest environmental threats.

Your research was able to establish the first link between pollution levels and life expectancy.

For a long time, people have known that air pollution can be harmful to their health. It’s difficult to quantify the health effects of air pollution, especially over time. People move and are exposed to different levels depending on their socioeconomic status. It is often difficult to control all factors that can cause air pollution.

What happens to our bodies when we inhale polluted air

Fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) is a concern. The particles are small enough to penetrate your lungs and bloodstream. They can travel through your body, into your heart and brain. For example, PM2.5 can cause strokes or heart attacks in people who have pre-existing cardiovascular or respiratory conditions.

How did we get to this point?

This is a complex question, but I will try my best. Because poor countries are more likely to become industrialized, due to their relative lack of environmental standards, there is a lot of manufacturing that is polluting. People who are very poor don’t have the financial means to pay for clean air. Both governments and the public don’t seem to be concerned about air pollution until their income reaches a certain level. Then, people begin to realize that they want cleaner air, but not those diseases.

How is the air quality like in Beijing?

The Games saw China’s air quality decline again between 2010 and 2013. The government launched the “war against pollution” in 2013. The average improvement in air quality in northern Chinese cities has been more than 35% over the past five year. These areas were previously very polluted. If you compare Beijing today with Beijing five years ago, it is almost possible to say that the current air quality in Beijing is better than what was during the Olympic Games. This shows that stronger enforcement and better regulation can reduce air pollution.

What is the secret to China’s success?

It is a comprehensive plan. The first step was to examine the causes of pollution. They moved many factories out of the core area, and closed down many polluting plants. Farmers can get subsidies from the government to recycle straw so that they don’t have it to burn.

Which group is most affected?

When we consider the immediate effects, it is obvious that babies and the elderly are most affected by air pollution. Their bodies are more vulnerable. However, everyone is affected over the long-term – many years instead of a few months or days.