China’s Toxic Air Could Kill a Population the Size of Orlando

The country’s pollution could contribute to 257,000 deaths over the next decade.


If nothing is done to slash the levels of toxic smog in China’s air, some 257,000 Chinese people could die over the next decade from pollution-related diseases, according to a new study released this week by Peking University and Greenpeace. That really is a lot of people; it’s roughly equal to the population of Orlando, Florida, or Buffalo, New York.

The researchers analyzed the 2013 levels of what’s known as PM2.5 pollutants—tiny airborne particles billowing from China’s coal production and industry. They projected the number of “premature deaths”—from diseases like heart disease and lung cancer—that could occur over the next 10 years if 2013’s level of pollution persists over the long term.

At the top of the list of China’s most polluted cities, toxic air in the industrial hub of Shijiazhuang could be responsible for as many as 137 premature deaths per 100,000 people. The team found the average across the country’s 31 populous provincial capitals was staggering:

The report comes amid renewed attention on China’s smog crisis. Another Greenpeace study released earlier this month revealed that 90 percent of Chinese cities that report their air pollution levels are failing to meet China’s own national standards, despite the government’s self-declared “war on pollution,” which includes measures to curtail coal use in big cities like Beijing, and to limit heavy industries.

If China met those standards, says Greenpeace in this latest report, nearly half of the premature deaths could be avoided.

The research is also notable because it was conducted jointly by China’s best known and most prestigious university, Peking University (known locally as Beida), and Greenpeace, the international environmental advocacy group that has had a long and complicated relationship with China’s authoritarian officials. The study was widely reported by state-run media, in another sign China’s censors are loosening some restrictions around environmental reporting in the country in the face of intense public pressure for transparency.

The report adds to the growing amount of literature about the deadly impacts of the country’s smog. An article that appeared in the The Lancet last year said that air pollution caused 350,000 to 500,000 premature deaths a year. An earlier Lancet study reported that air pollution caused 1.2 million premature deaths in 2010 alone.

More MotherJones reporting on Climate Desk

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest