Smoggy City, Shorter Life?

Air quality in China tied to shorter life expectancy

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Chris Galloway, M.D.

(RxWiki News) You eat right, exercise often and try to stay healthy. But could the air quality where you live be working against you? Does what you breathe take years off your life?

A new study focused on air quality in China found that pollution may be reducing the life expectancy of residents by about 5.5 years.

This research indicates the air you breathe does impact your quality of health.

"Check local pollution reports to stay informed."

Led by Yuyu Chen, PhD, of the Applied Economics Department at Peking University in Beijing, this study focused on China's Huai River policy.

Under this policy, the government provided free coal to communities north of the Huai River. The coal was used in fuel boilers for winter heating. Communities south of the river were not provided with the free coal.

According to the researchers, the policy was implemented from 1950 to 1980. This method of indoor heating remains much more common in the north.

"The combustion of coal in boilers is associated with the release of air pollutants, and in particular emission of particulate matter that can be extremely harmful to human health," the researchers explained.

These researchers looked at measurements of total suspended particulates (TSPs), which is a way to measure the presence of matter, like pollution, in the air.

Dr. Chen and team obtained data on the average concentrations of TSPs in 90 Chinese cities during the years 1981 to 2000. They also used the Chinese Disease Surveillance Point system, which measured deaths and population counts at 145 sites across the country between 1991 and 2000.

North of the Huai River, TSP concentrations were around 184 micrograms per cubic meter, which was 55 percent higher than those in the south.

According to the researchers' analysis, long-term exposure to just an additional 100 micrograms per cubic meter of TSPs was associated with an average three-year reduction in life expectancy.

Dr. Chen and team reported that life expectancies north of the Huai River were about 5.5 years lower. They noted that deaths related to cardiorespiratory problems like heart disease, stroke, lung cancer and respiratory illness were also higher in the North.

According to the study authors, among the 500 million residents of northern China, these numbers amount to more than 2.5 billion life-years of life expectancy lost. 

In an interview with the Financial Times, Hongbin Li, PhD, of the School of Economics and Management at Tsinghua University and co-author of the study, explained the impact of this research.

"It shows how high the cost of pollution is in terms of human life — and that it is worth it for the government to spend more money to solve the pollution issue, even if we have to sacrifice growth," said Dr. Li.

This study was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on July 8.

Funding was provided by a variety of organizations including the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Falk Institute, the Israel Foundation Trustees and the National Natural Science Foundation of China.

No conflicts of interest were reported.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
July 9, 2013
Last Updated:
July 30, 2013