This article provides information about the sources, seasonal and regional variation, and health effects of air pollution in China.
Sources of Air Pollution
The main sources of air pollution in China are coal-fired power plants, coal-fired heating systems, industrial activities, and vehicle emissions. Of these sources, it is the burning of massive amounts of coal that produces the most air pollution.
According to the U.S Energy Information Administration (US EIA), China combusted 3.8 billion tons of coal in 2011, accounting for 48% of global coal consumption. To put that number into perspective, that’s 5,846 lbs of coal burned for each person in China in one year.
Coal-fired Power Plants
According to the World Coal Association, there were 620 coal-fired power plants operating in China in 2012. These power plants can be found all across China. However, most of the power plants are located in central and eastern China, the areas of highest population density and industrial activity. The US EIA estimated that coal-fired power plants generated 69% of the electricity consumed in China in 2011.
In 2012, The International Energy Agency (IEA) reported that 89% of China’s coal-fired power station fleet is younger than 20 years while 69% of the fleet is younger than 10 years. This reflects the rapid development of China driven by its incredible economic growth.
In 2008, MIT’s Industrial Performance Center released a paper presenting the results of a survey of China’s coal-fired power sector (Steinfeld, E.S., Lester, R.K, & Cunningham, E.A. 2008). The survey revealed that many of China’s coal-fired power plants employ modern and sometimes state-of-the art technology. Additionally, the survey found that many power plants had installed equipment that can capture or neutralize some pollutants. However, the survey data showed that many plants were being operated inefficiently. Furthermore, power plants were sometimes idling pollution control devices and burning high-sulfur content coal to cut operating costs.
In 2006, China began to rapidly install sulfur dioxide (SO2) scrubbers at many coal-fired power plants (Xu, Y., Williams, R.H., & Socolow, R.H., 2009). A scrubber is a piece of equipment that captures pollutants from a power plant’s flue gasses. Sulfur dioxide is a toxic gas that can cause respiratory issues. A properly operated scrubber can remove upwards of 90% of sulfur dioxide from flue gasses.
According to Xu et al (2009), approximately 48% of coal-fired power plants in China had SO2 scrubbers by the end of 2007. At that time, the researchers found that many scrubbers were not being operated correctly and some were not being used at all. Later research reported that due to changes in environmental policies, scrubbers were operating correctly and almost continuously (Xu 2011).
Recent incidents reveal that power plant managers are still shutting down their scrubbers and ignoring pollution regulations to cut costs and increase profits. For example Huaneng, a large state-owned power company, was fined a paltry $13,000 USD in 2012 for repeatedly ignoring environment regulations and periodically shutting down scrubbers at its power plants (Mufson 2013, March 10). Such measly fines simply become an affordable added cost of doing business for power plants. Paying the fine is a more profitable option than obeying the law (Finamore 2013, March 4).
While China has a Ministry of Environmental Protection, air pollution regulations, and inspectors to enforce regulations, their regulatory system is still not adequate enough to tackle the grave air pollution. There are a few reasons for this.
The largest power companies are owned by the state. This situation can lead to collusion between government inspectors and plant managers and result in subversion of regulations. Furthermore, power plants in China are run as for profit businesses. So when coal prices go up, power plants might buy cheaper, dirtier grades of coal to maintain profits. Additionally, there just aren’t enough inspectors to monitor all of the facilities.
Even with an adequate regulatory framework in place, China’s air pollution problem is rooted in its reliance on coal to meet its energy needs. Coal is the filthiest of fossil fuels.
The world coal association estimated that China’s demand for coal will increase by 20% over the next five years (Tomczak 2014, April 11). According to information obtained by Reuters, China plans to open 15 new, large-scale coal mines (Stanway 2013, January 7). Obviously, coal combustion will continue to be China’s main energy source. Equally as obvious is that cities across China will continue to experience ghastly air pollution for a long, long time to come.
Coal-fired Heating Systems
In many cities in central and northern China, apartments and buildings have central heating. The heat comes from hot water carried through pipes. The hot water originates from large boilers powered by burning coal. Hundreds and hundreds of coal-fired, central heating plants are located in communities throughout China’s central and northern provinces. Many of these facilities have no pollution control devices, are not monitored, and do not abide by any of the existing air pollution regulations (Century 2013, November 14).
A significant amount of China’s coal is used to produce steel. China is the world’s top steel producing country, churning out more steel than the U.S., Russia, and Japan combined. Steel plants are spread all over China. The air pollution from steel plants doesn’t only come from the use of coal. The overall steel making process produces a wide array of air pollutants that are potentially harmful to one’s health and the environment.
In 2008, the Alliance for American Manufacturing (AAM) released a research report on the environmental regulation of steel plants in China. AAM’s research found China’s steel industry to have low environmental standards, ineffective enforcement of already weak regulations, and energy inefficiencies in steel plant operations.
According to AAM’s findings, steel plants in China release far more air pollutants per ton of steel compared to U.S. steel plants. Not surprisingly, the report concluded that a lack of investment in effective pollution control measures meant lower costs of production at Chinese steel plants. The cost of pollution is simply passed onto citizens in the form of shortened lives and poisoned air, land, and water.
Other Industrial Activities
China has been described as the world’s factory. Chinese factories produce an astonishing spectrum of materials and goods, in turn producing an astonishing spectrum of air pollutants. Industrial activities in China spew a bewildering array of toxic gasses and particles everywhere.
The burning of coal also figures into many industrial activities. Coal is burned as a heat and energy source to make cement, glass, coke, ceramics, and other materials.
China has the world’s largest auto market. Motor vehicles create significant air pollution in cities all across China. As the affluence of its citizens rises, more and more Chinese are buying cars, further exacerbating an already dire pollution problem. In some cities, vehicle emission account for the majority source of pollution.
While Chinese governmental agencies have established automobile manufacturing requirements to curb pollutants from vehicle emissions, those requirements are never enforced. As a result, there are many trucks on the road that have no pollution control devices. Collectively, these trucks spew massive amounts of toxic pollutants into the air on a daily basis.
Seasonal Variation of Air Pollution
Air pollution in China is at its worst in wintertime. During the cold weather months, more coal is combusted to run boilers to heat homes and buildings. Air pollution spikes in winter, reaching levels that make it hazardous to go outside.
Naturally occurring temperature inversions trap air borne pollutants, leading to dangerous atmospheric conditions. Normally, air temperature decreases with altitude. During a temperature inversion, a layer of air exists in which temperature rises with altitude. An inversion layer can trap air beneath it, causing pollutant concentrations to build to extremely dangerous levels.
Temperature inversions in China happen most often in winter, when the atmosphere becomes calm and windless. Last winter in the city where I live, this atmospheric phenomenon happened several times, with each event stretching on for several days. The air pollution reached incredibly unhealthy levels. It was my first winter in China, and the air pollution soared to the worst levels ever recorded. My health declined; at times I thought I was going to die.
Regional Variation of Air Pollution
At times, harmful air pollution affects most of China, which is astonishing considering the size of the country. However, areas in the southern and western part of the country generally have cleaner air than those in the central and north-central regions.
The air pollution in Beijing gets a lot of coverage by the western media, simply because it’s the capital city. However, there are many cities in China with air pollution worse than Beijing. By constantly focusing on the air pollution in Beijing, a city which accounts for only 2.5% of China’s population, the media often fails to adequately characterize the extent of the problem.
Among the provinces with the worst air pollution are Hebei, Henan, Shanxi, Shaanxi, and Shandong. In 2014, the environmental organization Greenpeace used 2013 data from China’s Ministry of Environment Protection (MEP) to rank 74 cities in China according to air quality. The city of Xingtai in Hebei province had the worst average air pollution in 2013. Jinan, a city in Shandong Province, ranked 7th worst, and Zhengzhou, the provincial capital of Henan, ranked 10th worst.
In 2012, the magazine The Economist published a map that used satellite data to show the distribution of particulate pollution throughout China. The map gives you an idea of places to avoid in China, should you be thinking of living and working there.
If you spend any time at all studying China’s air pollution problem, you will certainly encounter information about PM2.5, a measure of airborne particulate matter less than or equal to 2.5 micrometers in diameter. These small particulates have been implicated in causing cardiorespiratory disease and other serious illnesses (Lipsett, M.J.1, Ostro, B.D., Reynolds, P., Goldberg D., Hertz A., Jerrett M., Smith D.F., Garcia C., Chang E.T., & Bernstein L. 2011). PM2.5 is one of the measurements used to calculate the Air Quality Index (AQI) reported daily for cities across China.
While PM2.5 is potentially harmful, it is only one component of a complex mixture of substances found in China’s ambient air. In that complex mixture, there are a variety of pollutants that can affect the health of the general population depending on the concentration of each pollutant and the length of the population’s exposure.
The combined toxicity of these potentially harmful pollutants is not known with certainty. However, recent studies make it clear that the severe air pollution in China has grave health consequences.
Estimates vary regarding how many people die prematurely in China each year due to the health effects of air pollution. In December of 2012, the medical journal The Lancet published a 2010 study called the Global Burden of Disease. This multi-component study evaluated wide-ranging causes of death around the globe, including deaths from chronic exposure to outdoor air pollution. The study concluded that in 2010, approximately 1.2 million people in China died prematurely from air pollution.
In 2013, The Lancet published a commentary written by Chen Zhu, China’s former health minister, and three other Chinese authors (Chen, Z., Wang, J.N., Ma, G.X., & Zhang, Y.S. 2013). . Chen Zhu and his colleagues estimated that outdoor air pollution causes 350,000 – 500, 000 premature deaths each year in mainland China. To substantiate their conclusions, the researchers cited information from the World Health Organization, The World Bank, and Fudan University’s Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning.
More startling are the conclusions of a study published last year in the Journal of the Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (Chen, Y., Ebenstein, A., Greenstone, M., & Lie, H. 2013). The study concluded that air pollution is causing the 500 million residents of northern China to lose more than 2.5 billion life years of life expectancy. The authors also reported that life expectancy of residents in northern China is 5.5 years lower than residents in southern China. Truly horrifying.
Also published in 2013 was a study that associated air pollutant levels in Beijing with potential years of life lost from exposure to those pollutants (Guo, Y., Li, S., Tian, Z., Pan, X., Zhang, J., & Williams, G. 2013). The authors used a mathematical model to associate years of life lost with specific air pollutants. The study investigated four common pollutants: PM2.5, PM10, SO2, and NO2. For each of the four pollutants, the study’s investigators obtained air pollution measurements from different areas in Beijing. The pollution data was then plugged into the model. The conclusions of this study echoed that of other studies: severe air pollution can reduce life by several years or more.
The most disturbing study I found was published earlier this year by the online scientific journal PLOS ONE (Tang, D., Lee, J., Muirhead, L., Ting, Y.L., Qu, L., Yu, J., & Perera, F. 2014, March 19). The study is titled “Molecular and Neurodevelopmental Benefits to Children of Closure of a Coal Burning Power Plant in China.” The study was carried out by the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health, located in New York, in collaboration with Chongqing Children’s Hospital in China. The study’s researchers took advantage of advanced news that a highly-polluting, coal-fired power plant in Tanglian County, China, would be closing. These researchers studied and compared two birth cohorts. The first cohort of babies was born while the power plant was still in operation; the second cohort was born after the power plant closed.
The recruitment eligibility of pregnant mothers for each birth cohort was the same: each woman had to be a non-smoker of at least 20 years of age and live within 2.5 kilometers of the power plant. For both cohorts, researchers collected umbilical cord blood samples at the time of birth. The cord blood samples were analyzed for biomarkers which indicate exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), a toxic class of compounds released during incomplete combustion of coal. At two years of age, the researchers assessed each baby’s neurological development using a series of standardized tests called the Gesell Developmental Schedules (GDS).
The study found that the cohort of babies born after the plant was shut down had better GDS scores and lower levels of biomarkers associated with exposure to PAH. The study provides evidence of the detrimental effects air pollutants can have on the neurological development of babies.
The health effects of air pollution have a monetary cost to China’s economy. In 2011, MIT’s Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change published a paper that sought to quantify the monetary cost of the health effects of air pollution (Matus, K., Nam, K.M., Selin, N.E., Lamsal, L.N., Reilly, J.M., & Paltsev, S. 2011). The study’s researchers used a mathematical model that calculated health service inputs, lost labor, and leisure time needed to deal with illnesses due to air pollution. The researchers estimated that in 2005 the total negative monetary impact to China’s economy was $112 billion USD.
Only recently has the Chinese government decided to formally monitor and study the health effects of air pollution (Bloomberg News 2013, October 29). However, who knows whether the monitoring effort will be genuine or not.
How My Health has been Affected by China’s Air Pollution
In August of 2013, I moved to Anyang, a medium sized city in northern Henan Province. The air pollution in Anyang is quite bad. Since moving here, my nasal passages have been constantly inflamed, and I came down with a sinus infection.
Beyond having chronic sinusitis, at times I find it hard to breath. It’s like I am breathing but still not getting enough oxygen. It’s a feeling that causes a sense of terror and imminent death.
Sometimes at night while lying in bed, I feel like some little scratchy things are caught deep in my throat, and I start to cough. These coughing fits can go on for a half an hour or more before the scratchy feeling goes away.
The World Health Organization’s (WHO) guideline for inhalation of fine particles (pm2.5) over a 24 hour period is 25 micrograms/cubic liter. I use aqicn.com to follow the pm2.5 readings for Anyang, the city where I live. The pm2.5 readings rarely drop below 100. During the winter, pm2.5 spikes and readings soar to between 250 – 400 for days on end. That’s 10 to 16 times higher than the WHO’s safety limit.
The WHO’s pm2.5 guideline for one year of exposure is only 10 microgram/cubic liter. That means dozens of cities around China, including the one I live in, have extremely poor air quality with potentially grave health consequences.
To put it succinctly, many cities in China are not livable places. For a place to be livable, the simple act of breathing should not decrease your life expectancy.
Air Pollution Reductions and the Future
By employing scrubbers at roughly half of its coal-fired electric stations, China has made progress in decreasing harmful SO2 emissions. However, SO2 is just one of several pollutants that are potentially hazardous to public health.
China plans to build a number of facilities that turn coal into synthetic natural gas (SNG) (Styles 2014, January 22). The gas produced at these facilities can be used for heat and power generation and burns much more cleanly than coal. This strategy will help meet future energy needs while cutting down on additional emissions of harmful fine particles. However, the use of SNG will account for only a small portion of China’s future energy mix. Burning coal will remain king.
China is actively trying to expand its nuclear power capacity. Currently, the government would like to see a tripling of China’s nuclear capacity by the year 2020. According to the World Nuclear Association, China currently has 23 nuclear power reactors in operation, while 26 additional plants are currently under construction. It’s is unclear to me as to how China will dispose of its nuclear waste. The proliferation of nuclear energy facilities is of concern to citizens who have little trust in the people who are constructing and operating these facilities.
China’s State Council has set 2020 as the year by which to cap total coal consumption. Between now and then, overall coal consumption will likely increase by some amount. To think that China’s air may continue to worsen over the next 10 to 15 years is truly horrifying.
The development taking place in China is unprecedented in its scale and speed. China will continue to require more and more energy to keep pace with its astounding development. China plans to continue to rely on coal to meet the bulk of its electricity demands. As such, air quality will remain horrible for a long time to come.
While environmental laws have been put in place to help curb air pollution, these laws are not being enforced. So far, China’s efforts to clean up its environment are almost all talk with little action and few results. Those in power have placed greed as the priority while degrading their country’s environment and the health of the people to a degree and scale never before witnessed in human history.
The Public’s Knowledge and Attitude about Air Pollution
I work as a teacher at a local university in Anyang City. The air quality in Anyang is very poor. On a few of the worst days, I asked my students if they thought the hazy air was due to fog, something caused by nature, or due to something else. In each of my classes, about forty percent of the students were sure the hazy air was due to fog. About forty percent thought the haze was due to pollution from factories. The remaining twenty percent weren’t sure. I was floored that more than half the students thought either the haze was from fog or weren’t sure. My little poll represents the low level of knowledge many Chinese still have about air pollution.
Now it is possible to get real-time air quality readings for dozens of cities in China. These numbers are available through smartphone apps. But many people don’t know what the numbers really mean or the health impacts related to the numbers. What’s more, the Chinese government’s categorization of air quality readings downplay the severity of the numbers. For instance, China’s Ministry of Environment Protection classifies a city with a 24-hr PM2.5 reading of 100 as lightly polluted, even though such a reading is five times the limit set by the World Health Organization.
Many Chinese people believe that their bodies have somehow adapted to the pollution. Such thoughts betray the ignorance about the long-term health effects of extreme air pollution. Or maybe it’s just wishful thinking. If a Chinese person lives in a polluted city and feels OK, he or she may reason that there isn’t a problem. However, many people’s lives are cut-short in China due to chronic exposure to air pollution. Things that don’t kill you immediately are tricky like that. It may take years for a person to develop lung cancer or a severe respiratory disease. But for many, especially in central and northern China, it’s only a matter of time.
Yet, there is virtually nothing a Chinese person can do about it. So, they must simply live their lives without constantly thinking about the pollution. It’s the only way to mentally cope, otherwise they’d lose their minds. Face masks can help cut down on exposure. However, you can’t wear a face mask 24 hours a day. In fact, it’s recommended to wear a face mask for not more than six to eight hours a day. When indoors, you still are not safe from pollution. The tiny particles in the pollution can enter through the smallest of seams in windows and doors.
In 2015, a former CCTV reporter named Chai Jing released a documentary called “Under the Dome.” Her documentary, funded with her own money, is about China’s air pollution. She took a big risk in making the film. About a week after the film was released online, the Chinese government ordered that the film be scrubbed from any and all Chinese websites.
Note: Hyperlinks are embedded in the literature references found in the body of this article. Just hover and click.
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Century, A. ( 2013, November 14). Northern Chinese brace for smog spike as winter heating kicks in. Sinopshere – New York Times. Retrieved August 11, 2014 from http://sinosphere.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/11/14/northern-chinese-brace-for-smog-spike-as-winter-heating-kicks-in/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0
Chen, Y., Ebenstein, A., Greenstone, M., & Lie, H. (2013). Evidence on the impact of sustained exposure to air pollution on life expectancy from China’s Huai River policy. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 110 (32), 12936–12941, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1300018110
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