The Shocking Number of People Dying Daily From China’s Air Pollution

Not only does burning coal contribute to climate change, it’s also taking a toll on human health.
Women wear face masks in downtown Shanghai. (Photo: Aly Song/Reuters)
Aug 15, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

China’s smog-filled streets aren’t just forcing people to wear hospital masks to keep from coughing when they brave the outdoors. The smog is also killing residents at an alarming rate.

Outdoor air pollution kills more than 4,000 people every day, or roughly 1.6 million people in China annually, according to a new study released by Berkeley Earth. That’s 17 percent of all deaths in the country.

“Air pollution is the greatest environmental disaster in the world today,” Richard Muller, the scientific director of Berkeley Earth and the paper’s coauthor, said in a statement. Berkeley Earth is an independent research organization based in Berkeley, California, whose past studies addressed skeptics of human-caused climate change and promoted the use of natural gas over coal. The paper will be published in scientific journal PLOS One this month.

After studying hourly measurements from 1,500 stations around China over a four-month period, the researchers found that almost 40 percent of the Chinese population inhales air considered unhealthy by U.S. standards. Researchers focused on pollutant particulate matter 2.5 microns or smaller in diameter (PM2.5). The fine airborne particles can be easily inhaled, enter the bloodstream, and cause a wide array of health problems including heart attack, stroke, lung cancer, and asthma.

The study also found that the pollution has the ability to travel. While Bejing produced moderate harmful emissions, it was still a heavily polluted area—which could cause problems when the country attempts to reduce pollution for the 2022 Winter Olympics.

The cause of the pollution is no surprise. The PM2.5 matched that of sulfur, leading the researchers to link the deaths to coal.

China is the world’s largest burner of coal and relies on the fossil fuel for about 70 percent of its energy needs. Burning coal also contributes to climate change, as it emits harmful greenhouse gases. China pledged to stop these emissions from rising by 2030 and vowed to cap its coal consumption by 2020.

An April report from Greenpeace found that air pollution had decreased moderately in China due to government measures but that 90 percent of cities don’t meet the country’s own air-quality standards.