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Smog dramatically reduces life expectancy in China

Posting in Environment

Earlier this year, Beijing had some of its worst recorded smog levels ever. And while we knew that high levels of smog were a health concern, we now have a better understanding for just how much smog impacts the lives of people living in northern China.

A new study from Massachusetts Institute of Technology projects that the 500 million people who live north of China's Huai River will have a combined reduced life expectancy of 2.5 billion years thanks to particulate pollution from coal that's used to power and heat the region. On average, that's about five years every person in the region is losing from their life just from bad air quality.

“We can now say with more confidence that long-run exposure to pollution, especially particulates, has dramatic consequences for life expectancy,” said Michael Greenstone, a professor at MIT who conducted the research alongside colleagues in China and Israel, in a statement.

The study, published by the Proceedings for the National Academy of Sciences, uses the Huai River as a dividing line because Chinese policy provided the region north of the river with free coal starting in 1981. Using data from 1981 to 2000, the study found that the total amount of particulates in the air was 55 percent higher in the north than the south. And, looking at mortality statistics from 1991 to 2001, the researchers found that the south had far fewer deaths from cardiorespiratory illness.

The researchers also show that for every 100 micrograms of particulate matter per cubic meter added to the atmosphere life expectancy at birth is reduced by three years, a measure that can be applied to any environment, not just China. On its worst days Beijing's measured air pollution topped 900 micrograms per cubic meter.

“Everyone understands it’s unpleasant to be in a polluted place,” said Greenstone. “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.”

As Financial Times points out, the shorter life expectancy is equivalent of reducing the workforce in northern China by one-eighth.

Read more: MIT

Photo: Flickr/stan

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— By on July 9, 2013, 9:00 PM PST

Tyler Falk

Contributing Editor

Tyler Falk freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. Previously, he was with Smart Growth America and Grist. He holds a degree from Goshen College. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure