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Air pollution in China

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Air pollution in China

Beijing air on a 2005 day after rain (left) and a smoggy day (right)

Pollution is one aspect of the broader topic of environmental issues in China. Various forms of pollution have increased as China has industrialized, which has caused widespread environmental and health problems.[1][2]

Types of pollution

Soil contamination

Immense and sustained growth of the People's Republic of China since the 1970s has exacted a price from the land in increased soil pollution. The State Environmental Protection Administration believes it to be a threat to the environment, to food safety and to sustainable agriculture. According to a scientific sampling, 150 million mi (100,000 square kilometers) of China’s cultivated land have been polluted, with contaminated water being used to irrigate a further 31.5 million mi (21,670 km2.) and another 2 million mi (1,300 square kilometers) covered or destroyed by solid waste. In total, the area accounts for one-tenth of China’s cultivatable land, and is mostly in economically developed areas. An estimated 12 million tonnes of grain are contaminated by heavy metals every year, causing direct losses of 20 billion yuan (US$2.57 billion).[8]Cincinnati Ohio


The small level of "environmental awareness" has hindered the development of proper recycling systems in China's cities as the amount of waste increases.[3] In 2012 the waste generation in China was 300 million tonnes (229.4 kg/cap/yr).[4]

Beginning from June 1, 2008, all supermarkets, department stores and shops throughout the entire country of China are prohibited from giving out free plastic bags. Stores must clearly mark the price of plastic shopping bags and are banned from adding that price onto the price of products. The production, sale and use of ultra-thin plastic bags - those less than 0.025 millimeters, or 0.00098 inches, thick - are also banned. The State Council called for "a return to cloth bags and shopping baskets."[5] This ban, however, does not include the widespread use of paper shopping bags at clothing stores or the use of plastic bags at restaurants for takeout food.[6] Since the ban, ten percent fewer plastic bags have been thrown away.[7]

Electronic waste

In 2011, China produced 2.3 million tons of electronic waste, second largest in the world. The annual amount is expected to increase as the Chinese economy grows. Large amounts of electronic waste are imported from overseas, as well. Disassembly and processing of electronic waste can create jobs and recycle valuable materials but also harm humans and the environment by releasing pollutants. Legislation banning importation and requiring proper disposal of indigenous waste as well as providing for governmental subsides for proper disposal has recently been introduced but has been criticized as insufficient and susceptible to fraud. There have been local successes, such as in the city of Tianjin where 38,000 tonnes were disposed of properly in 2010, but much electronic waste is improperly handled.[8]

Guiyu may have one of the world's largest electronic waste sites. The electronic waste in Guiyu and recycling operations have created many jobs but also many health and environmental problems.

Industrial pollution

Air pollution caused by industrial plants

In 1997, the World Bank issued a report by Susmita et al. targeting China's policy towards industrial pollution. The report stated that "hundreds of thousands of premature deaths and incidents of serious respiratory illness [have been] caused by exposure to industrial air pollution. Seriously contaminated by industrial discharges, many of China's waterways are largely unfit for direct human use". However, environmental regulations and industrial reforms had had some effect. Continued environmental reforms were likely to have a large effect at a modest cost.[9]

Joseph Kahn and Jim Yardley of the New York Times in a 2007 article about China's pollution problem stated that "Environmental degradation is now so severe, with such stark domestic and international repercussions, that pollution poses not only a major long-term burden on the Chinese public but also an acute political challenge to the ruling Communist Party." Main points from the article included:[10]

  1. According to the Chinese Ministry of Health, industrial pollution has made cancer China’s leading cause of death.
  2. Every year, ambient air pollution alone killed hundreds of thousands of citizens.
  3. 500 million people in China are without safe and clean drinking water.
  4. Only 1% of the country’s 560 million city dwellers breathe air considered safe by the European Union, because all of its major cities are constantly covered in a "toxic gray shroud". Before and during the 2008 Summer Olympics, Beijing was "frantically searching for a magic formula, a meteorological deus ex machina, to clear its skies for the 2008 Olympics."
  5. Lead poisoning or other types of local pollution continue to kill many Chinese children.
  6. A large section of the ocean is without marine life because of massive algal blooms caused by the high nutrients in the water.
  7. The pollution has spread internationally: sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides fall as acid rain on Seoul, South Korea, and Tokyo; and according to the Journal of Geophysical Research, the pollution even reaches Los Angeles in the USA.
  8. The Chinese Academy of Environmental Planning in 2003 had an internal and unpublished report which estimated that 300,000 people die each year from ambient air pollution, mostly of heart disease and lung cancer.
  9. Chinese environmental experts in 2005 issued another report, estimating that annual premature deaths attributable to outdoor air pollution were likely to reach 380,000 in 2010 and 550,000 in 2020.
  10. A 2007 World Bank report conducted with China's national environmental agency found that "...outdoor air pollution was already causing 350,000 to 400,000 premature deaths a year. Indoor pollution contributed to the deaths of an additional 300,000 people, while 60,000 died from diarrhea, bladder and stomach cancer and other diseases that can be caused by water-borne pollution." World Bank officials said "China’s environmental agency insisted that the health statistics be removed from the published version of the report, citing the possible impact on 'social stability'".

A draft of a 2007 combined World Bank and SEPA report stated that up to 760,000 people died prematurely each year in China because of air and water pollution. High levels of air pollution in China's cities caused to 350,000-400,000 premature deaths. Another 300,000 died because of indoor air of poor quality. There were 60,000 premature deaths each year because of water of poor quality. Chinese officials asked that some of results should not be published in order to avoid social unrest.[11]

China has achieved some improvements in environmental protection during the recent years. According to the World Bank, 'China is one of a few countries in the world that have been rapidly increasing their forest cover. It is managing to reduce air and water pollution.[12]

Vennemo et al. in a 2009 literature review in Review of Environmental Economics and Policy noted the wide discrepancy between the reassuring view in some Chinese official publications and the exclusively negative view in some Western sources such as the above NYT article. The review stated that "although China is starting from a point of grave pollution, it is setting priorities and making progress that resemble what occurred in industrialized countries during their earlier stages of development." Environmental trends were described as uneven. Quality of surface water in the south of China was improving and particle emissions were stable. But NO2 emissions were increasing rapidly and SO2 emissions had been increasing before decreasing the last year (2007) for which data was available.[13]

Water pollution

The water resources of China are affected by both severe water quantity shortages and severe water quality pollution. An increasing population and rapid economic growth as well as lax environmental oversight have increased water demand and pollution. In response, China has taken measures such as rapidly building out the water infrastructure and increased regulation as well as exploring a number of further technological solutions.

Air pollution

Thick haze blown off the Eastern coast of China, over Bo Hai Bay and Yellow Sea. The haze might result from urban and industrial pollution.

Air pollution is damaging the health condition of Chinese people and it is reaching to point of threat to the government. Coal consumption generates “Particulate Matter” also known as the "PM". Currently Beijing is suffering from PM2.5, which is a particulate matter with diameter of 2.5 micrometers or less. According to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, such fine particular matters induce asthma, bronchitis, and acute and chronic respiratory symptoms such as shortness of breath and painful breathing, and premature deaths.[14] The Telegraph reported a case of an 8-year-old girl who had contracted lung cancer, becoming “the youngest victim of lung cancer” in China.[15] Doctors pointed out that the likely cause was exposure of air pollution, specifically the fine particulate matters from vehicles. This has gathered large national public attention and also international attention.

Zhong Nanshan, the president of the China Medical Association, in 2012 warned that air pollution could become China's biggest health threat. Lung cancer and cardiovascular disease were increasing because of factory and vehicle air pollution and tobacco smoking. Lung cancer was two to three times more common in cities than in the countryside despite similar rates of tobacco smoking. Zhong stated that while transparency had increased in recent years much more information was needed and called for detailed epidemiological research. He questioned official data stating that air pollution was decreasing. Until recently the governmental air quality index did not include ozone and PM2.5 despite being the most dangerous to human health.[16] Measurements in January 2013 showed levels of air pollution, as measured by the density of particulate matter smaller than 2.5 micrometres in size, was literally off the chart – higher than the maximum 755 μg the US Embassy's equipment can measure.[17] Smog from mainland China has reached as far as California.[18]

Sulfur dioxide emissions increased until 2006 after which they began to decline. This has been accompanied by improvements on several related variables such as the frequency of acid rains and satellite measurements of aerosol optical depth. This is likely mainly due to adoption of sulfur reducing technology by power plants.[19]

Large scale use of formaldehyde in construction and furniture also contribute to indoor air pollution.[20]


According to the World Bank, the cities with the highest levels of particulate matter in the PRC in 2004 of those studied were Tianjin, Chongqing, and Shenyang.[21] In 2012 stricter air pollution monitoring of ozone and PM2.5 were ordered to be gradually implemented so that by 2015 all but the smallest cities would be included. State media acknowledged the role of environmental campaigners in causing this change. On one micro-blog service more than a million mostly positive comments were posted in less than 24 hours although some wondered if the standards would be effectively enforced.[22]

The US embassy in Beijing regularly posts automated air quality measurements at @beijingair on Twitter. On 18 November 2010, the feed described the PM2.5 measurement as "crazy bad" after registering a reading in excess of 500 for the first time. This description was later changed to "beyond index",[23] a level which recurred in February, October, and December 2011.[24][25][26]

In June 2012, following strongly divergent disclosures of particulate levels between the Observatory and the US Embassy, Chinese authorities asked foreign consulates to stop publishing "inaccurate and unlawful" data.[27] Controversy arose when U.S. Embassy declared Beijing air as “very unhealthy” on 5 June; underlying data showed 199 micrograms of particulate matter. In contrast, readings from the Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau declared Beijing air as “good”; its data showed levels between 51 and 79 micrograms for the corresponding period.[28] Officials said it was "not scientific to evaluate the air quality of an area with results gathered from just only one point inside that area", and asserted that official daily average PM2.5 figures for Beijing and Shanghai were "almost the same with the results published by foreign embassies and consulates".[27]

By January 2013 the pollution had worsened with official Beijing data showing an average figure over 300 and readings of up to 700 at individual recording stations while the US Embassy recorded over 755 on January 1 and 800 by January 12.[29][30]

On October 21, 2013, record smog closed the Harbin Airport along with all schools in the area. Daily particulate levels of more than 50 times the World Health Organisation recommended daily level were reported in parts of the municipality.[31]

Government's response to the air pollution

Regarding air pollution, especially to eradicate smog, PRC government is enforcing stricter regulations. The most prominent case is Beijing. As the capital of China, it is suffering from high levels of air pollution. According to Reuters, on September 2013, PRC government published the plan to tackle air pollution problem on its official website.[32] Major goal of the plan is to reduce coal consumption by closing polluting mills, factories and smelters and switching to other eco-friendly energy resources.

China’s strategy has been largely focusing on the development of other energy resources such as nuclear power, hydropower and Compressed Natural Gas. The latest plan entails closing of the outdated capacity of the industrial sectors like iron, steel, aluminum and cement and increasing nuclear capacity and other non-fossil fuel energy. It also includes stop approving new thermal power plants and cut coal consumption in industrial areas.



Lead poisoning was in a 2001 paper described as one of the most common pediatric health problems in China. A 2006 review of existing data suggested that one-third of Chinese children suffer from elevated blood lead levels. Pollution from metal smelters and a fast-growing battery industry has been responsible for most cases of particularly high levels. In 2011, there were riots in the Zhejiang Haijiu Battery Factory from angry parents whose children received permanent neurological damage from lead poisoning. The central government has acknowledged the problem and have taken measures such as suspending battery factories but some see the response as inadequate and some local authorities have tried to silence criticisms.[33]

A literature review of academic studies on Chinese children's blood lead levels found that the lead levels declined when comparing the studies published during 1995-2003 and 2004-2007 periods. Lead levels also showed a declining trend after China banned lead in gasoline in 2000. Lead levels were still higher than those in developed nations. Industrial areas had higher levels than suburban areas that had higher levels than urban. Controlling and preventing lead poisoning was described as a long term mission.[34]

Persistent organic pollutants

China is a signatory nation of the Stockholm Convention, a treaty to control and phase out major persistent organic pollutants (POP). A plan of action for 2010 includes objectives such as eliminating production, import and use of the pesticides covered under the convention, as well as an accounting system for PCB containing equipment. For 2015, China plans to establish an inventory of POP contaminated sites and remediation plans.[35] Since May 2009, this treaty also covers polybrominated diphenyl ethers and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid. Perfluorinated compounds are associated with altered thyroid function and decreased sperm count in humans.[36] It is a big challenge for China to control and eliminate POPs, since they often are cheaper than their alternatives, or they are unintentionally produced and then simply released into the environment to save on treatment costs.


The Yellow Dust or Asian dust is a seasonal dust cloud which affects North East Asia during late winter and springtime. The dust originates in the deserts of Mongolia, northern China and Kazakhstan where high-speed surface winds and intense dust storms kick up dense clouds of fine, dry soil particles. These clouds are then carried eastward by prevailing winds and pass over Northern China into Korea and Japan.

Desertification has intensified in China, as 1,740,000 km² of land is "dry", it disrupts the lives of 400 million people and causes direct economic losses of 54 billion yuan ($7 billion) a year, SFA figures show.[37] Sulfur (an acid rain component), soot, ash, carbon monoxide, and other toxic pollutants including heavy metals (such as mercury, cadmium, chromium, arsenic, lead, zinc, copper) and other carcinogens, often accompany the dust storms, as well as viruses, bacteria, fungi, pesticides, antibiotics, asbestos, herbicides, plastic ingredients, combustion products as well as hormone mimicking phthalates.[38]

Other pollutants

In 2010 49 employees at Wintek were poisoned by n-hexane in the manufacturing of touchscreens for Apple products.[39]

Portions of the country's rice supply were tainted with the toxic metal cadmium.[40][41]

Economic costs of pollution

A 2006 Chinese green gross domestic product estimate stated that pollution in 2004 cost 3.05% of the nation's economy.[42]

A 2007 World Bank and SEPA report estimated the cost of water and air pollution in 2003 to 2.68% or 5.78% of GDP depending on if using a Chinese or a Western method of calculation.[43]

A 2009 review stated a range of 2-10% of GDP.[13]

A 2012 study stated that pollution had little effect on economic growth which in China's case was largely dependent on physical capital expansion and increased energy consumption due to the dependency on manufacturing and heavy industries. China was predicted to continue to grow using energy-inefficient and polluting industries. While growth may continue, the rewards of this growth may be opposed by the harm from the pollution unless environmental protection is increased.[44]

Criticisms and dilemma regarding the PRC government's environmental policies

Critics point out PRC government’s lack of willingness to protect the environment as a common problem of China’s environmental policies. Even in the case of latest plan, experts are skeptical about its actual influence because of the loopholes. This is because the economic growth is still the most primary issue of PRC government that overrides environmental protection.

However if the measures to cut coal usage were implied strictly, it would also mean dismantling of the local economy that is highly reliant on heavy industry. Financial Times had interviewed a worker who stated, “if this still mill didn’t exist, we wouldn’t even have anywhere to go to eat. Everything revolves around this steel factory – our children work here."[45] Therefore air pollution problem is a complicated dilemma for PRC government in terms of its people’s survival.

Pollution ratings

As of 2004:

According to the National Environmental Analysis released by Tsinghua University and The Asian Development Bank in January 2013, 7 of 10 most air polluted cities are in China, including Taiyuan, Beijing, Urumqi, Lanzhou, Chongqing, Jinan and Shijiazhuang.[47]

See also


  1. ^ "The Most Polluted Places On Earth". CBS News. 2010-01-08. Retrieved 2013-01-21. 
  2. ^ "Air Pollution Grows in Tandem with China's Economy". NPR. Retrieved 2013-01-21. 
  3. ^ Violet Law (July 28, 2011). "As China's prosperity grows, so do its trash piles". The Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved 29 July 2011. 
  4. ^ Waste Atlas (2012). Country Data: CHINA
  5. ^ "China bans free plastic shopping bags", AP Press via the International Herald Tribune, January 9, 2008
  6. ^ Personal observation in Shanghai and Beijing, August 2009
  7. ^ David Biello, Scientific American, Does Banning Plastic Bags Work?, August 13, 2009.
  8. ^ Mitch Moxley, "E-Waste Hits China", Inter Press Service, 2011
  9. ^ Dasgupta, Susmita; Hua Wang; Wheeler, David; (1997-11-30). "Surviving success: policy reform and the future of industrial pollution in China, Volume 1". The World Bank. Retrieved 2009-03-14. 
  10. ^ Kahn, Joseph; Jim Yardley; (August 26, 2007). "As China Roars, Pollution Reaches Deadly Extremes". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-03-14. 
  11. ^ "'"China 'buried smog death finding. BBC. 2007-07-03. 
  12. ^ Wassermann, Rogerio (2009-04-02). "Can China be green by 2020?". BBC. 
  13. ^ a b Vennemo, H.; Aunan, K.; Lindhjem, H.; Seip, H. M. (2009). "Environmental Pollution in China: Status and Trends". Review of Environmental Economics and Policy 3 (2): 209. doi:10.1093/reep/rep009. 
  14. ^ "PM2.5". United States Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved 7 October 2014. 
  15. ^ T, Phillips (5 November 2013). "China’s air pollution blamed for eight-year-old’s lung cancer". The Telegraph. Retrieved 7 October 2014. 
  16. ^ Jonathan Watts, Air pollution could become China's biggest health threat, expert warns, Friday 16 March, The Guardian,
  17. ^ Wong, Edward (April 3, 2013). "2 Major Air Pollutants Increase in Beijing". The New York Times. Retrieved April 4, 2013. 
  18. ^ Kaiman, Jonathan (16 February 2013). "Chinese struggle through 'airpocalypse' smog". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 4 March 2013. 
  19. ^ Lu, Z.; Streets, D. G.; Zhang, Q.; Wang, S.; Carmichael, G. R.; Cheng, Y. F.; Wei, C.; Chin, M.; Diehl, T.; Tan, Q. (2010). "Sulfur dioxide emissions in China and sulfur trends in East Asia since 2000". Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics 10 (13): 6311. doi:10.5194/acp-10-6311-2010. 
  20. ^ "Pollution makes cancer the top killer". Xie Chuanjiao (China Daily). 2007-05-21. 
  21. ^ "2007 World Development Indicators: Air Pollution." Table 3.13.. World Bank (2007). Washington, DC.
  22. ^ Hennock, Mary (1 March 2012). "China combats air pollution with tough monitoring rules". The Guardian.
  23. ^ "'"US Embassy Accidentally Calls Beijing's Pollution 'Crazy Bad. Techdirt. 2010-11-23. Retrieved 2013-01-21. 
  24. ^ "Beijing's polluted air defies standard measure". 2011-02-26. Retrieved 2013-01-21. 
  25. ^ Barbara Demick (2011-10-29). "U.S. Embassy air quality data undercut China's own assessments". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2013-01-21. 
  26. ^ "Pollution in Beijing Reach Beyond Index Levels". 2011-12-13. Retrieved 2013-01-21. 
  27. ^ a b "Foreign embassies' air data issuing inaccurate, unlawful: official". Xinhua, 5 June 2012
  28. ^ BNO News (5 June 2012). "China asks U.S. Embassy to stop publishing Beijing air quality data", Channel 6 News.
  29. ^ Posted: 01/12/2013 4:49 am EST (2013-01-12). "Beijing, China Air Pollution Hits Hazardous Levels". Retrieved 2013-01-21. 
  30. ^ "BBC News - Beijing air pollution soars to hazard level". 2013-01-12. Retrieved 2013-01-21. 
  31. ^ "China: record smog levels shut down city of Harbin | euronews, world news". Retrieved 2013-10-21. 
  32. ^ Stanway, D (6 November 2013). "China cuts gas supply to industry as shortages hit". Reuters. 
  33. ^ LaFraniere, Sharon (2011-06-15). "Lead Poisoning in China: The Hidden Scourge". New York Times. 
  34. ^ He, K.; Wang, S.; Zhang, J. (2009). "Blood lead levels of children and its trend in China". Science of the Total Environment 407 (13): 3986–3993. PMID 19395068. doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2009.03.018. 
  35. ^ "The People’s Republic of China: National Implementation Plan for the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants". Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants. 2007. 
  36. ^ "Swimming in Poison: A hazardous chemical cocktail found in Yangtze River Fish". Greenpeace China. 2010-08-26. 
  37. ^ Wang Ying. "Operation blitzkrieg against desert storm". China Daily. Archived from the original on April 10, 2007. Retrieved April 3, 2007. 
  38. ^ "Ill Winds". Science News Online. Retrieved October 6, 2001. 
  39. ^ "N-hexane Poisoning Scare At Apple Supplier In China". China Tech News. 2010-02-22. 
  40. ^ China to Survey Soil Amid Fears Over Rice June 12, 2013 Wall Street Journal
  41. ^ Stanway, D (6 November 2013). [from "China cuts gas supply to industry as shortages hit"]. Reuters. 
  42. ^ Sun Xiaohua (2007) "Call for return to green accounting", "China Daily", 19 Apr 2007.
  43. ^ Cost of Pollution in China Economic Estimates of Physical Costs. 2007. World Bank. http:/
  44. ^ Polluting China for the sake of economic growth. 27-Apr-2012. EurekAlert!.
  45. ^ Hornby, L (22 October 2013). "Cleaner air a bitter pill for north China cities". Financial Tiimes. 
  46. ^ a b c Qin, Jize (2004-07-15). "Most polluted cities in China blacklisted". China Daily. 
  47. ^ "WEATHER & EXTREME EVENTS 7 of 10 Most Air-Polluted Cities Are in China". JAN 16, 2013 (Imaginechina/Corbis). Retrieved 1 September 2014. 

External links

  • Cleaner Production in China - Current and comprehensive information source on China's campaign to reduce pollution
  • Photo essay on water pollution in Huai River Basin
  • Most polluted cities in China
  • Clearing the Air: China's Environmental Challenge - Asia Society - Overview on China air pollution problem
  • Documentary project “Pollution in China.”
  • Spill in China Underlines Environmental Concerns March 2, 2013 The New York Times
  • "The Environmental Challenge to China's Future", Dr. Elizabeth Economy, 2010
  • Accompanying the growth of industry is an increase in pollution and toxic waste that threatens the livelihood and health of people in rural fishing and farming communities.
  • Youtube video:China's Pollution Busters
  • Terrible Pollution in China
  • Environmental activist Wu Dengming documents.
  • Youtube video:Where does e-waste end up?
  • Youtube video:Exporting Harm trailer
  • Youtube video:Electronic Trash Village - China
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