Air Pollution in China Causes 1.1 Million Deaths Every Year, Study Says

Two air pollutants, PM2.5 and ground-level ozone, are responsible for the annual deaths of 1.1 million people and billions in economic damage in China.
Air Pollution in China Causes 1.1 Million Deaths Every Year, Study Says
A woman wears a mask to protect against pollution as they wait to cross the street in heavy smog on Dec. 8, 2015 in Beijing, China. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
Nicole Hao
Two air pollutants, PM2.5 and ground-level ozone, are responsible for the deaths of 1.1 million people annually in China, and cause economic damage worth 267 billion yuan ($38.8 billion), according to new research conducted by the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK).

Among the estimated yearly deaths are about 1,000 Hong Kong residents.

Air pollution in China also destroys 20 million metric tons of crops, including soybeans, corn, rice, and wheat, the study said.
“This is a fairly large and significant figure considering that it amounts to about 0.7 percent of national GDP,” said Steve Yim Hung-lam, the lead investigator and assistant professor in the geography & resources management department of CUHK.
PM2.5 is a type of respirable particulate with a diameter of 2.5 micrometers or less, that is, around 3 percent the width of a human hair. The particles are produced by burning coal or car emissions. PM2.5 particles can accumulate in the lungs and bloodstream, where they can cause DNA mutation, heart attacks, respiratory problems, and premature death.
The average concentration of PM2.5 in Chinese cities is 48 micrograms per cubic meter (mcg) of air. That’s more than twice the average of 19 mcg in 2,626 cities around the world.
Ground-level ozone, produced by fossil-fuel combustion, is an increasing problem in China and Hong Kong. It causes respiratory and heart problems, and hinders photosynthesis in plants.
In June, the regional governments of Hong Kong, Macao, and Guangdong Province released a joint report saying that in the past six years, ozone concentrations in the southern Chinese coastal region rose by 16 percent year-on-year, reaching a new high in 2017.
In December 2013, Chen Zhu, China’s former minister of health, published an article on The Lancet in which he said that 350,000 to 500,000 Chinese died every year because of severe air pollution. Chen wrote that air pollution was the “the fourth-biggest threat to the health of Chinese people,” after heart disease, poor diet, and smoking.
In recent years, in addition to neighboring countries such as Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, even the western United States has been reporting pollutants that originated from China. Rob Schmitz of NPR cited scientists as saying that “Asian air pollution contributed as much as 65 percent of an increase in Western ozone in recent years.”
Stephanie Ewing, a postdoctoral researcher from the University of California Berkeley, reported in 2017 that “29 percent of the pollution in the San Francisco Bay area comes from China.”
While the Chinese regime often downplays the severity of local air pollution, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing began providing a real-time PM 2.5 index in 2008.
Nicole Hao is a Washington-based reporter focused on China-related topics. Before joining the Epoch Media Group in July 2009, she worked as a global product manager for a railway business in Paris, France.