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Air pollution shorten lifes by 5.5 years, says study

People wear masks on a hazy day in Beijing in 2013. Photo: Reuters

Air pollution causes people in northern China to live an average of 5.5 years shorter than their southern counterparts, according to a study which claims to show in unprecedented detail the link between air pollution and life expectancy.

The research, conducted by scholars from China, the US and Israel, was published Monday in a notable US scientific journal, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"The study gives a clear answer to the link between life expectancy and air pollution," Li Hongbin, an economics professor at Tsinghua University School of Economics and Management in Beijing who collaborated with other researchers on the study, told China Daily on Tuesday.

The study analyzed the total suspended particulate matter and deaths in 90 cities across China from 1981 to 2000, finding a sharp difference in mortality rates on either side of the Huai River, which is the border giving people living north of the line free heating in winter.

"With the heating policy, the northern areas have been exposed to more pollution than the southern areas, which makes the study possible," Li said, adding that low rates of migration during this period were also key to the study.

Air pollution in the north from burning coal was 55 percent higher than in the south between 1981 and 2000, while life expectancies were 5.5 years lower on average across all age ranges.

The researchers said the differences in life expectancies were due mainly to increased deaths caused by diseases related to air quality, such as heart disease, stroke, lung cancer and respiratory illnesses.

Their analysis estimated that every additional 100 milligrams of total suspended particulate matter per cubic meter in the atmosphere lowers life expectancy at birth by about three years.

Total suspended particulate matter includes large particles and PM 2.5 — particles with diameters less than 2.5 micrometers — which are of great health concern because they can penetrate deep into the lungs. However, the researchers lacked the data to analyze those tiny particles separately.

"The real situation might be worse than the study showed, because PM 2.5 can be more harmful to health," Li added.

"We do hope the government can pay attention to [the problem], as a drop of life expectancy by 5.5 years means reducing the workforce in the north by one-eighth, which would cause damage to the nation's development," Li said.

Mixed reactions

The study has drawn mixed reactions among professionals.

Peng Yingdeng, a research fellow with a national research center for environmental pollution control, told the Global Times that severe air pollution in the north increased the risks for people to suffer from cardiorespiratory diseases.

However, Pan Xiaochuan, a professor of public health with Peking University, said that the design of the study is "not scientific enough."

"Some factors, such as the difference in diet and age composition of each city, cannot be missed out as they are very important factors in life expectancy," Pan said.

The research result became one of the most popular topics online, due to the public's concern over the air pollution after continuous smog choked northern and central China.

In January, the readings of PM2.5, airborne particles measuring less than 2.5 microns in diameter, in the Chinese capital once reached nearly 700, far above what the World Health Organization classifies as a health risk.

Peng said that the government has noticed such issues and carried out measures to optimize energy infrastructure in northern China, such as using clean energy as alternatives.


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