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In China, air pollution could take years off of your life

An unprecedented study published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences calculates the real danger of particulate air pollution. The research reveals that Chinese policy may inadvertently cause people in northern China to live 3.1 years less because air pollution concentrations are 46 percent higher in this region than they are in the south.

Experts estimate that 4.5 billion people are  exposed to levels of particulate pollution that are at least twice what the World Health Organization considers safe. This study is the first to determine the impact that prolonged exposure to particulate matter has on a person’s lifespan.

The findings of the study suggest that an extra 10 micrograms per cubic meter of particulate matter pollution (PM10) reduces life expectancy by 0.6 years and causes an increase in cardiorespiratory deaths.

“These results greatly strengthen the case that long-term exposure to particulates air pollution causes substantial reductions in life expectancy,” said co-author Michael Greenstone. “They indicate that particulates are the greatest current environmental risk to human health, with the impact on life expectancy in many parts of the world similar to the effects of every man, woman and child smoking cigarettes for several decades.”

Greenstone is the director of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC). He said that history has shown us that “air pollution can be reduced, but it requires robust policy and enforcement.”

The study focused on China’s Huai River policy, which provided free coal for winter heating to people living north of the river. China did not have the resources to provide free coal to the entire country, which is part of why the policy was developed.

Residents exposed to more pollution in northern China were generally not able to migrate to less polluted areas due to migration restrictions, which produced a great opportunity for scientists to observe the health effects of particulate pollution in a natural environment.

“The study’s unique design provides solutions to several challenges that have been difficult to solve,” said co-author Maoyong Fan. “The Huai River policy also provides a research design that can be used to explore a variety of other questions about the long-run consequences of exposure to high levels of pollution.”

China has recently increased its efforts to curb air pollution. China is switching its primary source of heating from coal-fired boilers to gas or electric units, and has shut down many coal plants. This has significantly decreased particulate air pollution in some of China’s most polluted cities, including Beijing.

“Our findings show that these changes will bring about significant health benefits for the Chinese people in the long run,” said co-author Guojun He. “If all of China were brought into compliance with its Class I standards for PM10, more than 3.7 billion life-years will be saved.”

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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