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Living Green

Air pollution affecting life spans in China – M.I.T.

Not only is limiting carbon emissions globally needed to slow climate, but it’s important for human health as well, finds researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

M.I.T. researchers have released a study in which they saw a direct correlation between rising levels of particulate matter in China and the health of the population.

Using a generalized metric which states that every additional 100 micrograms of particulate matter per cubic meter in the atmosphere lowers life expectancy at birth by three years, they looked at pollution data and mortality statistics of the populations living to the north and south of the Huai River.

They found that, the high level of particulate matter produced by burning coal has significantly shortened the lives of people exposed to it.

Particulate matter is often linked to various cardiovascular diseases. These extremely small solid particles of matter can be inhaled and get deep into the lungs and bloodstream.

Prior to 1980, the Chinese government provided free coal for fuel boilers for people living north of the Huai River. The free-coal policy meant people in the north stayed warm in the winter but it also resulted in notably worse environmental conditions then the south.

For the time span of 1981 to 2000, the researchers found that air pollution, as measured by total suspended particulates, was about 55 percent higher north of the river then south, with a difference of about 184 micrograms of particulate matter per cubic meter.

Linking this pollution data to mortality statistics from 1991 to 2000, they found a sharp difference on mortality rates on each side of the Huai River. This difference is attributable to cardiorespiratory illness and not other causes of death.

“We can now say with more confidence that long-run exposure to pollution, especially particulates, has dramatic consequences for life expectancy,” says Michael Greenstone, the 3M Professor of Environmental Economics at M.I.T., who conducted the research with colleagues in China and Israel.

The research projects that some 500 million Chinese who live north of the Huai River are set to lose an aggregate 2.5 billion years of life expectancy due to the extensive use of coal to power boilers for heating in the region.

It’s not just those living north of the Huai whose health is at risk from particulate matter. China’s government agencies have place particulate matter levels at more than 400 micrograms per cubic meter between 1981 and 2001. Beijing alone recorded levels of more than 700 micrograms per cubic meter this January. Mr. Greenstone says he hopes the findings will have a policy impact not only in China, but also in other rapidly growing countries that are increasing their consumption of coal. – EcoSeed Staff

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