Choking to Death:Health Consequences of Air Pollution in China
Image Credit: Flickr (by the measure of mike)

Choking to Death:Health Consequences of Air Pollution in China


As the delegates of the National People’s Congress (NPC) gather in Beijing to formally endorse nominees for key government leadership posts and policies, it would be hard for them to ignore the poor air quality in the country’s capital. Last Thursday morning, readings near Tiananmen Square measured the concentration of PM2.5—fine particles in the air that are smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter and are considered dangerous because they tend to penetrate the gas exchange regions of the lungs—at 469 micrograms per cubic meter, which corresponds to a U.S. EPA Air Quality Index reading of 479 (the scale stops at 500). Anything above 301 is considered “hazardous” in that it can cause “serious aggravation of heart or lung disease and premature mortality in persons with cardiopulmonary disease and the elderly,” and there is a “serious risk of respiratory effects in general population.” The PM2.5 levels in other famously polluted cities pale in comparison to those in Beijing; for instance, the highest PM2.5 level in a 24-period recorded in Los Angeles was 43 micrograms per cubic meter.

The poor air quality, according to a leading Chinese public health expert, is worse than SARS because nobody can escape it. Research suggests that air pollution can “raise the risk of cardio-respiratory death by 2 to 3 percent for every increase of 10 micrograms per cubic meter of pollutants.” Only 1 percent of China’s 560 million urban residents breathe air considered safe by the European Union, according to a 2007 World Bank study.  A report released by China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection in November 2010 showed that “about a third of 113 cities failed to meet national air standards.” The 2012 Cancer Registry Annual Report revealed that lung cancer is top among all types of cancer in terms of the number of cases and deaths in China. Indeed, the number of lung cancer-caused mortality in China has increased by 465 percent in the past three decades. In Beijing, the number of lung cancer patients has increased by 60 percent in the last ten years. The rising incidence rate of lung cancer coincides with drastic reduction in the incidence rates of stomach cancer and cervical cancer, which is thought to be a result of improvements in public health standards.

For years, public health experts considered smoking the leading risk factor of lung cancer. Yet a recent report prepared by some prominent Chinese public health experts and economists did not find any significant change in China’s overall smoking rate over the last decade. A group of scientists analyzed historical records of aerosol particles and lung cancer incidence in Guangzhou and found that a dramatic increase in the occurrence of air pollution from 1954 to 2006 was followed by a large increase in the lung cancer incidence rate despite the drop in the overall smoking rate. It was found that 750,000 Chinese die prematurely each year, primarily because of air pollution in large cities. According to more recent estimates by Greenpeace and Peking University’s School of Public Health, exposure to PM2.5 contributed to more than 8,500 premature deaths in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Xi’an in 2012 alone.

The thick haze served as a wake-up call for the government, which seems to become more transparent in discussing air pollution in China. As public awareness of the problem grew, pressure on the government to address the underlying causes also increased. To improve the air quality, the Beijing municipal government has taken some emergency measures, including temporarily shutting down more than 100 factories and ordering one-third of government vehicles off the streets. However, given that coal burning in neighboring provinces and cities is a major contributor of the PM2.5 concentration in Beijing, the effectiveness of these steps has been limited. Moreover, while emissions from motor vehicles and coal-burning operations are responsible for the worsening air pollution in China, economic growth requires increased energy use. Since the regime’s legitimacy hinges upon delivering robust economic growth, governments at all levels continue to pursue growth at the expense of environment. We are going to see more NPC delegates pushing for better environmental protection measures, but don’t expect any fundamental change until the government has shifted to a new legitimacy base and restructured the state-society relationship to allow for more effective participation of civil society groups in the public policy process. In the words of Chinese premier-to-be Li Keqiang, “It will be a long process to resolve environmental problems.”

Yanzhong Huang is a Senior Fellow for Global Health at the Council on Foriegn Relations. He blogs at Asia Unbound, where this piece originally appeared.


[...] result: rising levels of lung cancer. According to The Diplomat, only one per cent of China’s 560 million urban residents breathe air considered safe by the [...]

April 29, 2013 at 09:19

That is why china is grabbing and invading other territories,coz their air sucks,too much people,not enough recources.

April 18, 2013 at 22:27

thank you this news was very helpful I think its rediculous the air in china

April 18, 2013 at 20:35

This stage of industrialisation and urbanisation has happened to all the developed countries in their stage of development… London was once covered in a thick smog, soon China will become a developed country (albeit few decades) and will take more care in its environmental issues, so tired of these hypocrites thinking China is the only country who has had such severe air pollution in the past..

Charles Queen
March 14, 2013 at 01:55

Thats not their only problem.Seems china has a huge and growing by the day garbage problem.They have only a few state run garbage sites meaning the people who are not in close proximity of these sites have to  create their own garbage dump sites which are uncontroled as are the state ran ones are,it's leaking into their aquifers etc and is causing deseases abd birth deformaty's etc yet their leadership or dictaters refuse to do anything at all about this problem,much like their polllution problems they ignore it all

China's Gutter Oil
March 13, 2013 at 12:10

Surprisingly, John Chan, et al  are absent in this thread! 

I can't blame them really, maybe they're busy distributing gas masks to therir Communist Masters! 


‘The Diplomat' won't be the same without you guys! LOL…

Kim's Uncle
March 12, 2013 at 05:22

@ observer,

It is a source embarrassment for neo Maoist Chinese which they don’t have a valid response! Their country is filthy which no civilized person would want to live in that way so the only recourse for ultra Chinese nationalists is to crawl under a rock and hide since a response would mean they have to defend the filth their fathers created!

March 11, 2013 at 01:33

More information about pollution (air, water, and land) in china – (this is not spam) =–business.html


Where are the chinese posters with all the bragging? The silent from them is unreal.

[...] even the air they breathe is specially purified, while ordinary citizens live in a capital where air quality  indexes regularly reach the hazardous range and lung cancer rates are exploding. [...]

March 10, 2013 at 03:27

[...] isso, China e Índia (e sabe darwin quantos outros países menos em foco na mídia…) se sufocam em [...]

March 9, 2013 at 01:46

Sorry, typo, should be 3D instead of AD.

March 9, 2013 at 01:45

Finally a CCP 50-center (John Chan) popped up and as usual, we got:

1. A attempt to divert from the main topic, i.e., "choking to death in china",

2. A fabricated story about china being the world leader in AD patent holding.  Remember, lots of china-granted patents are just copies of US patents, ok?

March 8, 2013 at 20:54

The Chinese can’t blame no one really. This is what happens when you want to reach top economical status as soon as you can without thinking on the overall implications.
Soon this would cost China billions.

John Chan
March 8, 2013 at 12:05

@p john,

Chinese may be coughing due to smog, but their living condition is still way better than the Japanese who are being poisoned by the 4000 time radiation leaking from Fukushima nuclear power plants that will last for another few thousand years. Mind you though Japanese air might seem clear but the toxin from the nuclear radiation is invisible deadly killer. Indeed pretty soon Japanese will be too weak to encroach on Diaoyu Islands due to nuclear radiation poisoning.

Chinese smog is also way safer comparing to the Agent Orange spread on the Vietnam soil by the ruthless American.


John Chan
March 8, 2013 at 11:52


China is the world leading patent holder in 3D printing as well as graphene production technologies, and China is using 3D printing technology to produce titanium aerospace parts; while France is nowhere to be seen. French is so passé.

March 8, 2013 at 00:38

@ Laura


Please save us from your lecturing, we don't need another Chinese apologist making excuses for bad, unsustainable economic and environmental policies. The west is making great strides towards a greener future, 3D printing technology is becoming more and more feasible everyday, green tech R&D is also largely driven by North America and Europe.


If China wants to play the role of manufacturer for the world, then it must also bear the responsibility of maintaining that role. They need to find cleaner ways of running those factories and they need to invest in proper energy infrastructure. A large amount of that smog in the cities are a result of individuals burning coal to heat their homes. If they can use alternative, cleaner sources for heating, the smog would be greatly reduced even having to touch the factories.

March 7, 2013 at 23:58

你说的对啊 You are right, unfortunately that argument allows China to rationalize its extravagance too, except it is PMI 400+ and nothing is gonna stop the race.

I am USA living in Shanghai. Not as bad as Beijing or smaller cities of only 12m but…. I grew up thinking LA was super polluted. Ha. 40 pmi vs 480 pmi, this is peoples health seriously, and yes Americans should wake up and stop the consumption binge but this in China is brutal very serious reality that will not change.

Be Way
March 7, 2013 at 13:53

You forgot to mention that the majority of population in Philippines together with India, has the most filthy and shabby slums that are not even fit for human dwelling.

March 7, 2013 at 13:45

Perfect training ground to harden the lungs of Chinese astronauts going to Mars. After breathing all this stuff, they won't even need space suits on Mars. Breathing Martian air would be such a relief!


March 7, 2013 at 11:18

Hmm the silence of the fiddy cent crew is deafening. I really feel for the citizens of China & their future generations. No one should have to breathe air like that & the societal health costs are enormous & will only get worse if stricter environmental laws are not immediately passed & rigorously enforced.


Tea partiers like Grover want to drown govt. in a bathtub but agencies like the EPA are true servants of the people & show *why* unregulated capitalism is just as bad as communism. Get rid of the EPA & we're back to rivers on fire & lead in the air.

Share your thoughts

Your Name
Your Email
required, but not published
Your Comment

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief