Corporate Banner
Satellite Banner
Technology
Networks
Scientific Communities
 
Become a Member | Sign in
Home>News>This Article
  News
Return

Study Estimates Extent to Which Air Pollution in China Shortens Human Lives

Published: Wednesday, July 10, 2013
Last Updated: Wednesday, July 10, 2013
Bookmark and Share
New quasi-experimental research finds major impact of coal emissions on health.

A high level of air pollution, in the form of particulates produced by burning coal, significantly shortens the lives of people exposed to it, according to a unique new study of China co-authored by an MIT economist.

The research is based on long-term data compiled for the first time, and projects that the 500 million Chinese who live north of the Huai River are set to lose an aggregate 2.5 billion years of life expectancy due to the extensive use of coal to power boilers for heating throughout the region. Using a quasi-experimental method, the researchers found very different life-expectancy figures for an otherwise similar population south of the Huai River, where government policies were less supportive of coal-powered heating.

“We can now say with more confidence that long-run exposure to pollution, especially particulates, has dramatic consequences for life expectancy,” says Michael Greenstone, the 3M Professor of Environmental Economics at MIT, who conducted the research with colleagues in China and Israel.

The paper, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, also contains a generalized metric that can apply to any country’s environment: Every additional 100 micrograms of particulate matter per cubic meter in the atmosphere lowers life expectancy at birth by three years.

In China, particulate-matter levels were more than 400 micrograms per cubic meter between 1981 and 2001, according to Chinese government agencies; state media have reported even higher levels recently, with cities including Beijing recording levels of more than 700 micrograms per cubic meter in January. (By comparison, total suspended particulates in the United States were about 45 micrograms per cubic meter in the 1990s.)

Air pollution has become an increasingly charged political issue in China, spurring public protests; last month, China’s government announced its intent to adopt a series of measures to limit air pollution.

“Everyone understands it’s unpleasant to be in a polluted place,” Greenstone says. “But to be able to say with some precision what the health costs are, and what the loss of life expectancy is, puts a finer point on the importance of finding policies that balance growth with environmental quality.”

A river runs through it

The research stems from a policy China implemented during its era of central planning, prior to 1980. The Chinese government provided free coal for fuel boilers for all people living north of the Huai River, which has long been used as a rough dividing line between north and south in China.

The free-coal policy means people in the north stay warm in winter — but at the cost of notably worse environmental conditions. Using data covering an unusually long timespan — from 1981 through 2000 — the researchers found that air pollution, as measured by total suspended particulates, was about 55 percent higher north of the river than south of it, for a difference of around 184 micrograms of particulate matter per cubic meter.

Linking the Chinese pollution data to mortality statistics from 1991 to 2000, the researchers found a sharp difference in mortality rates on either side of the border formed by the Huai River. They also found the variation to be attributable to cardiorespiratory illness, and not to other causes of death.

“It’s not that the Chinese government set out to cause this,” Greenstone says. “This was the unintended consequence of a policy that must have appeared quite sensible.” He notes that China has not generally required installation of equipment to abate air pollution from coal use in homes.

Nonetheless, he observes, by seizing on the policy’s arbitrary use of the Huai River as a boundary, the researchers could approximate a scientific experiment.

“We will never, thank goodness, have a randomized controlled trial where we expose some people to more pollution and other people to less pollution over the course of their lifetimes,” Greenstone says. For that reason, conducting a “quasi-experiment” using existing data is the most precise way to assess such issues.

In their paper, the researchers address some other potential caveats. For instance, extensive mobility in a population might make it hard to draw cause-and-effect conclusions about the health effects of regional pollution. But significantly, in China, Greenstone says, “In this period, migration was quite limited. If someone is in one place, the odds are high they [had always] lived there, and they would have been exposed to the pollution there.”

Moreover, Greenstone adds, “There are no other policies that are different north or south of the river, so far as we could tell.” For that matter, other kinds of air pollution, such as sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxides, are spread similarly north and south of the river. Therefore, it appears that exposure to particulates is the specific cause of reduced life expectancy north of the Huai River.

In addition to Greenstone, the paper has three other co-first authors: Yuyu Chen, of the Guanghua School of Management at Peking University; Avraham Ebenstein, of Hebrew University of Jerusalem; and Hongbin Li, of the School of Economics and Management at Tsinghua University. The research project received funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Another reason to limit emissions

Scholars say the paper is an important contribution to its field. Arden Pope, an economist at Brigham Young University and a leading researcher in environmental economics and air pollution, calls it “one of the most dramatic and interesting quasi-experimental studies on the health effects of air pollution that has been conducted.” At the same time, Pope observes, the results are “reasonably consistent” with other air-pollution research using different study designs.

Pope notes that while many air-pollution studies have occurred in the United States and Europe, “It is important to conduct studies in China and elsewhere where the pollution levels are relatively high.” Going forward, he suggests, it would also be desirable for researchers to look for ways to specifically study the health effects of fine particles, those less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter.

Greenstone notes that the researchers were not sure what result they would find when conducting their study. Still, he says of the finding, “I was surprised by the magnitude, both in terms of [the quantity of] particulates, and in terms of human health.”

Greenstone says he hopes the finding will have a policy impact not only in China, but also in other rapidly growing countries that are increasing their consumption of coal. Moreover, he adds, given the need to limit carbon emissions globally in order to slow climate change, he hopes the data will provide additional impetus for countries to think twice about fossil-fuel consumption.

“What this paper helps reveal is that there may be immediate, local reasons for China and other developing countries to rely less on fossil fuels,” Greenstone says. “The planet’s not going to solve the greenhouse-gas problem without the active participation of China. This might give them a reason to act today.”


Further Information
Access to this exclusive content is for Technology Networks Premium members only.

Join Technology Networks Premium for free access to:

  • Exclusive articles
  • Presentations from international conferences
  • Over 2,500+ scientific posters on ePosters
  • More Than 3,700+ scientific videos on LabTube
  • 35 community eNewsletters


Sign In



Forgotten your details? Click Here
If you are not a member you can join here

*Please note: By logging into TechnologyNetworks.com you agree to accept the use of cookies. To find out more about the cookies we use and how to delete them, see our privacy policy.

Related Content

Searching Big Data Faster
Theoretical analysis could expand applications of accelerated searching in biology, other fields.
Thursday, August 27, 2015
Protein Found to Play a Key Role in Blocking Pathogen Survival
Calprotectin fends off microbial invaders by limiting access to iron, an important nutrient.
Wednesday, August 26, 2015
A Metabolic Master Switch Underlying Human Obesity
Researchers find pathway that controls metabolism by prompting fat cells to store or burn fat.
Friday, August 21, 2015
Capturing Cell Growth in 3-D
Spinout’s microfluidics device better models how cancer and other cells interact in the body.
Monday, August 17, 2015
Better Estimates of Worldwide Mercury Pollution
New findings show Asia produces twice as much mercury emissions as previously thought.
Thursday, August 13, 2015
Real-Time Data for Cancer Therapy
Biochemical sensor implanted at initial biopsy could allow doctors to better monitor and adjust cancer treatments.
Thursday, August 06, 2015
Identifying a Key Growth Factor in Cell Proliferation
Researchers discover that aspartate is a limiter of cell proliferation.
Friday, July 31, 2015
Firms “Under-invest” in Long-Term Cancer Research
Tweaks to the R&D pipeline could create new drugs and greater social benefit.
Thursday, July 30, 2015
Nanoparticles Can Clean Up Environmental Pollutants
Researchers have found that nanomaterials and UV light can “trap” chemicals for easy removal from soil and water.
Thursday, July 23, 2015
Bacterial Computing
The “friendly” bacteria inside our digestive systems are being given an upgrade, which may one day allow them to be programmed to detect and ultimately treat diseases such as colon cancer and immune disorders.
Monday, July 13, 2015
Researchers Develop Genetic Tools to Engineer Common Gut Bacterium
Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed genetic parts that can be combined to program the commensal gut bacterium Bacteroides thetaiotaomicron.
Friday, July 10, 2015
Chemists Design a Quantum-Dot Spectrometer
New instrument is small enough to function within a smartphone, enabling portable light analysis.
Friday, July 03, 2015
Longstanding Problem Put to Rest
Proof that a 40-year-old algorithm for comparing genomes is the best possible will come as a relief to computer scientists.
Thursday, June 11, 2015
Tough biogel structures produced by 3-D printing
Researchers have developed a new way of making tough — but soft and wet — bio-compatible materials, called “hydrogels,” into complex and intricately patterned shapes.
Wednesday, June 03, 2015
Diagnosing Cancer with Help from Bacteria
Engineered probiotics can detect tumors in the liver.
Friday, May 29, 2015
Scientific News
The Changing Tides of the In Vitro Diagnostics Market
With the increasing focus in personalized medicine, diagnostics plays a crucial role in patient monitoring.
LaVision BioTec Reports on the Neuro Research on the Human Brain After Trauma
Company reports on the work of Dr Ali Ertürk from the Institute for Stroke and Dementia Research at LMU Munich.
NIH Study Shows No Benefit of Omega-3 Supplements for Cognitive Decline
Research was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Less May Be More in Slowing Cholera Epidemics
Mathematical model shows more cases may be prevented and more lives saved when using one dose of cholera vaccine instead of recommended two doses.
Investigating the Vape
Expert independent review concludes that e-cigarettes have potential to help smokers quit.
NIH Launches Human RSV Study
Study aims to understand infection in healthy adults to aid development of RSV medicines, vaccines.
Researchers Discover Synthesis of a New Nanomaterial
Interdisciplinary team creates biocomposite for first time using physiological conditions.
Poor Survival Rates in Leukemia Linked to Persistent Genetic Mutations
For patients with an often-deadly form of leukemia, new research suggests that lingering cancer-related mutations – detected after initial treatment with chemotherapy – are associated with an increased risk of relapse and poor survival.
Flu Remedies Help Combat E. coli Bacteria
Physiologists from the University of Zurich have now discovered why the intestinal bacterium Escherichia coli (E. coli) multiplies heavily and has an inflammatory effect.
Marijuana Genome Unraveled
A study by Canadian researchers is providing a clearer picture of the evolutionary history and genetic organization of cannabis, a step that could have agricultural, medical and legal implications for this valuable crop.
Scroll Up
Scroll Down
Skyscraper Banner

Skyscraper Banner
Go to LabTube
Go to eposters
 
Access to the latest scientific news
Exclusive articles
Upload and share your posters on ePosters
Latest presentations and webinars
View a library of 1,800+ scientific and medical posters
2,500+ scientific and medical posters
A library of 2,500+ scientific videos on LabTube
3,700+ scientific videos
Close
Premium CrownJOIN TECHNOLOGY NETWORKS PREMIUM FREE!