North China Lives Cut 5 Years by Coal Burning, Study Says

People in northern China may be dying five years sooner than expected because of diseases caused by air pollution, an unintended result of a decades-old policy providing free coal for heat, a study found.

Coal burning leading to heart disease, stroke, lung cancer and respiratory illnesses may cause the 500 million Chinese living north of the Huai River -- a rough line dividing the country’s north and south -- to lose an aggregate 2.5 billion years of life expectancy, according to the research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences today.

The government gave free heating coal for people living north of the Huai River over a period of central planning from 1950 to 1980, and such indoor systems remain common today, the study showed. Burning coal in boilers is linked to the release of particulate matter that can be extremely harmful to humans, raising health costs and suggesting a move away from using fossil fuels would be attractive, according to Michael Greenstone, one of four authors of the study.

“This was an unintended consequence of the policy, showing that the health costs are substantially larger that we had previously understood,” Greenstone, a professor of environmental economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said in a phone interview. “It makes a movement away from the use of fossil fuels or the installation of pollution abatement equipment look much more attractive.”

The policy wasn’t implemented in the south because of budget constraints, according to the study.

Chinese Lifespan

The life expectancy at birth in China was 73 years in 2011, according to World Bank data.

The authors, who also comprise researchers from Peking University and Tsinghua University in Beijing, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, compiled air pollution data for 90 Chinese cities from 1981 to 2000 and analyzed 500,000 deaths recorded between 1991 and 2000.

They found that air pollution, as measured by total suspended particulates, was about 55 percent higher north of the river than south of it. Long-term exposure to every additional 100 micrograms of particulate matter per cubic meter cuts life expectancy at birth by three years, the study showed.

Indoor air pollution from solid fuel use and urban outdoor air pollution are estimated to be responsible for 3.1 million premature deaths globally every year, according to the World Health Organization.

Public Discontent

Air quality in Beijing reached hazardous levels for 20 days in January this year, according to U.S. Embassy readings. The figures showed the average level of PM2.5 pollution in the month was similar to an airport smoking lounge based on comparisons with data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. PM2.5 refers to fine air particles that pose the greatest health risks for lung and heart diseases.

Public discontent about pollution has replaced land disputes as the main cause of social unrest, Chen Jiping, a former leading member of the Communist Party’s Committee of Political and Legislative Affairs, said in March.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has since pledged to protect the environment and signaled a tolerance for slower economic expansion in return. The nation won’t sacrifice the environment to ensure short-term growth, he said during a study session of the Communist Party’s top leadership on May 24.

As part of efforts to curb pollution, the Ministry of Environmental Protection suspended approval for coal-fired power projects in the regions of Inner Mongolia, Henan and Guizhou, it said in May. The ministry also ordered 15 companies, including state-owned Hebei Iron & Steel Group, to pay fees for sulfur-dioxide emissions, according to a statement on its website.

— With assistance by Daryl Loo

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