In many Chinese cities, especially in the north, this has been the worst year in living memory for air pollution. It has become a reason foreigners refuse to be posted to those cities.
An agency of the World Health Organisation (WHO) has announced an even more alarming conclusion — outdoor air pollution is a major cause of cancer deaths. The announcement was made on Oct. 17 by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a WHO agency that specializes in cancer.
“We now know that outdoor air pollution is not only a major risk to health in general but also a leading environmental cause of cancer deaths,” said Dr. Kurt Straif, head of IARC´s Monographs Section. This is the first time experts have classified outdoor air pollution as a cause of cancer. The IARC found that the risk of developing lung cancer significantly increases in people exposed to air pollution.
In a report published at the end of 2012 on the global impact of polluted air in 2010, it found that 1.24 million Chinese had died prematurely because of polluted air, accounting for 38.75 per cent of deaths in the world. Of these, 610,000 died of cerebral angiography, 280,000 of heart disease, 200,000 of chronic blockage of the lungs and 10,000 of infection of the breathing tracts.
On Nov. 4, the China Academy of Social Sciences and China Meteorological Administration (CMA) issued a green paper on climate change. It confirmed the abnormalities which everyone has experienced.
CMA director Zeng Guoguang said that, between early January 2013 and mid-October, China reported 29.9 hazy days, 10.3 days more than during the same period the past year and a record since 1961.
He said that, in the past several months, rainstorms had occurred mainly in the northeast, northwest and Sichuan Basin while southern provinces had experienced severe drought and hot weather.
“Extreme weather events remind us that the process of urbanization do have an impact on climate change. Similarly, climate change does impact urbanization. It is an interaction,” he said.
In early November, doctors at Jiangsu Cancer Hospital said an eight-year-old girl had become the mainland’s youngest cancer patient as a result of living next to a busy road where she inhaled dust and polluted particles.
Dr Feng Dongjie said that these included superfine PM2.5 particles, less than 2.5 microns wide, that are considered the most dangerous kind of smog.
The hospital’s surgical ward has 120 beds, of which 50 are occupied by those with lung cancer. Most are not smokers but have contracted the disease from air pollution. Historically, most of the hospital’s lung cancer patients were over 50 years old; in recent years, the number of those below 50 has increased rapidly.
The IARC findings confirm the work of Chinese specialists. Yang Gonghuan, former vice director of the China Center for Disease Control, said their researchers had found that polluted air was increasingly contributing to the incidence of lung cancer in China.
Their data shows that polluted air was a leading cause of lung cancer, second only to smoking, which accounted for 36 per cent.
Globally, outdoor air pollution is the seventh most important risk to health; in China, it is fourth. Over the past 20 years, illnesses caused by such pollution in the country have increased 33 per cent.
“IARC is one of the most authoritative organisations dealing with cancer in the world,” said Yang. “The fact that outdoor air pollution causes lung cancer is a warning of the highest level.”
Those living in north China are worst affected, according to an international study released in July. It found that those who live north of the Huai river live an average of 5.5 years shorter than those who live south of it, mainly because of the air pollution caused by burning coal for heating.
The 2012 China Tumor Registry Annual Report said that lung cancer was the number one killer among cancers. Between 2001 and 2010, the number of lung cancer cases among Beijing residents rose 56 percent and in 2010 was the biggest cancer killer among men and second among women.
The IARC conclusions that link air pollution to cancer are a further and more pressing reason for the government to tackle this issue and protect the lives and work of its citizens.
Mark O’Neill, a Hong Kong-based journalist and author, writes on Greater China. He had worked as a correspondent for the South China Morning Post in Beijing and Shanghai.