Guest blogger Mike Frick from Asia Catalyst discusses the problem of air pollution in China and the need for better information.
One of the first things visitors to Beijing notice is the smog, which on bad days obscures buildings, forces people to stay indoors and even grounds planes at Beijing’s Capital Airport. Recently Zhong Nanshan, President of the China Medical Association, called air pollution China’s greatest health threat. To reduce the health costs of air pollution, China’s government must give its citizens more reliable and practical updates on air quality.
According to the World Health Organization, outdoor and indoor air pollution cause up to 300,000 and 550,000 deaths respectively each year in China, not to mention numerous cases of avoidable illness and days lost from work. A March report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development warned that exposure to the particles that make up smog could cause 3.6 million deaths a year globally by 2050, most of these in China and India. Air pollution is expected to overtake water pollution and poor sanitation as the leading environmental cause of premature mortality.
In 2008, Beijing went to heroic lengths to clear its skies for the Summer Olympic Games, but this only showed how frightening the situation has become. In one grim report, the Beijing Health Bureau said in December 2011 that lung cancer incidence in Beijing has increased by 60% over the last 10 years, even though smoking prevalence among men has held steady. Many blame Beijing’s notoriously bad air pollution, an idea supported by epidemiological modeling. A 2008 study suggested that China could face up to 18 million lung cancer deaths by 2030, with 75% of these deaths attributable to the combined effects of smoking and air pollution from solid fuel use.
Despite these warnings, Chinese authorities have been slow to address the health risks of air pollution. Basic health information remains a sensitive issue in China, where epidemics are sometimes considered state secrets.
Debates about the severity of Chinese air pollution tend to focus on PM2.5 particles, or fine particulate matter from dust, exhaust and the burning of solid fuels. Because of their small size, these particles penetrate deeply into the lungs. The so-called “three Cs”–cars, construction and coal–together account for much of the PM2.5 shrouding Chinese cities. Researchers have associated long-term exposure to high concentrations of PM2.5 with lung cancer and chronic respiratory conditions. As many visitors to Beijing discover, even short-term exposure can aggravate asthma and respiratory infections.
Chinese citizens need to know what the PM2.5 levels are on any given day. This allows them to make fundamental health choices, such as whether to allow children to play outside.
But until recently, the Chinese government only tracked larger PM10 particles, which pose less risk to respiratory health. On March 1, 2012, the Chinese State Council ordered 27 provincial capitals and other major cities to begin tracking PM2.5 concentrations, with plans to expand this policy to an additional 113 cities by 2013.
Although an important step forward, the new monitoring standards do not go far enough. It remains unclear how information on PM2.5 will be made publicly available. The quality of these new data also raises questions. Beijing residents can download a smartphone application that compares air quality indexes and PM2.5 readings taken by the US Embassy against those from the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP). The US Embassy measurements are frequently twice as high as MEP readings, which often boast of healthy “blue sky” days when even a glance out the window suggests the opposite.
Access to accurate health information is central to the enjoyment of the right to health, which is upheld in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, a human rights standard that China has signed and ratified. In General Comment 14, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights affirmed that the right to health includes “the right to seek, receive and impart information…concerning health issues,” including environmental conditions.
China’s environmental agency should go a step further. It should require Chinese cities to make hourly PM2.5 readings available via the Internet, cellphone applications and other mobile technologies. It is also important to have local readings for different neighborhoods or administrative districts. A PM2.5 measurement taken at 6:00 a.m. at an airport far outside the city center does not reflect air quality during morning rush hour downtown.
The Ministry for Environmental Protection should also develop clear guidelines to let people know how to respond to high readings. Schools, for example, should know that if PM2.5 readings pass a certain threshold, they should keep children indoors.
In the long term, Chinese authorities must make larger changes to reduce air pollution. In the meantime, China should uphold its obligations under the right to health by giving its citizens access to accurate, locally relevant air quality information.
Mike Frick is a China program officer at Asia Catalyst (www.asiacatalyst.org), a US-based nonprofit that does training, research and advocacy on health and human rights in Asia.