China Free Coal Policy Reduced Life Expectancy
July 9, 2013

China’s Free Coal Policy Reduced Life Expectancy By Five Years

Michael Harper for - Your Universe Online

Pollution in China has long been a concern of both the international community as well as its own citizens. Now, a new study has put some concrete numbers to this concern, claiming that those who live in China have had their lifespans reduced by five years. All told, the study claims that pollution generated by coal is responsible for taking 2.5 billion total years of life from nearly 500 million Chinese people.

Diseases such as heart disease, lung cancer and other respiratory illnesses and stroke are, at least in part, the effects of pollution for those living north of the Huai River, a geographical boundary which separates north and south China. A government program which offered citizens free coal to use for heating is being blamed for this pollution. According to the report, while the government policy had the "laudable goal of providing indoor heat [it] had disastrous consequences for health."

The study, conducted by MIT economist Michael Greenstone, is now published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"We can now say with more confidence that long-run exposure to pollution, especially particulates, has dramatic consequences for life expectancy," said Greenstone in a statement. His new study is based on long-term data from the 1980s that is only now being compiled and analyzed.

According to the Chinese government, particulate matter ranked over 400 micrograms per cubic meter between 1981 and 2001. Some state-run media agencies are reporting even higher numbers these days, ranking Beijing with levels higher than 700 micrograms per cubic meter. By comparison, particulate-matter levels were as low as 45 in the United States in the 1990s. Greenstone's study now suggests that an increase of just 100 micrograms can shrink life expectancy at birth by as many as three years.

Though pollution has long been a major concern for the Chinese people, Greenstone says this new study puts some solid numbers to the crisis, both in terms of life expectancy and health costs.

"Everyone understands it's unpleasant to be in a polluted place," said Greenstone. "But to be able to say with some precision what the health costs are, and what the loss of life expectancy is, puts a finer point on the importance of finding policies that balance growth with environmental quality."

Not every Chinese citizen received free coal to power their fuel boilers in the winter, however. Those living south of the Huai River did not receive coal due to budget constraints. This discrepancy gave Greenstone and his crew an opportunity to compare the differences in the health effects of coal pollution on a larger group of people. Air pollution is about 55 times higher north of the river than it is to the south, a difference that is reflected in the overall health of those living on both sides of the river. According to Greenstone, there is a "sharp" contrast in mortality rates between 1981 and 2001 on either side of the river. Furthermore, those who died north of the river were more likely to have suffered from respiratory illnesses.

"It's not that the Chinese government set out to cause this," Greenstone said in closing. "This was the unintended consequence of a policy that must have appeared quite sensible."

According to Bloomberg, the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection has suspended the program which doled out free coal in some regions of China.