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6 myths and facts about air pollution in China

Standard Page - 2011-11-08
There's a lot of misinformation out there when it comes to the air pollution debate in China making it, let's say, a hazy subject to understand. Here are three myths and three facts to help clear things up.

A man covers his face in an effort to avoid breathing the air pollution in Linfen, China.

Myth: Air pollution is only a problem for people living in Beijing and Shanghai

Air pollution is not only a problem for one or two cities, it's a regional issue. According to statistics from the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP), in most of the major cities of the eastern area of China there are more than 100 haze days each year, and the annual average PM2.5 concentration is two to four times above that of the World Health Organization's standard.

Myth: Car exhaust fumes is the single biggest contributor to air pollution

In fact, on the regional level the major single source of cause of PM2.5 (which is more dangerous than PM10 because it penetrates lungs and can enter blood circulation) is from coal burning, not car exhaust. Coal burning not only emits small particles, but also emits huge amounts of SO2 and NOx.

Myth: It's enough if cities independently conceive and execute their own solutions

Any effort to curb PM2.5 and other pollutants is worth a try, so at the city level, authorities can begin to control traffic, dust and reduce localized coal consumption. But because PM2.5 itself is rooted in a regional pollution issue, we need more ambition from the central level to control the country's severely high levels of coal consumption.

Fact: Eastern China's coal industry is a critical issue for air pollution

The eastern area of China is burning 40% of China's coal. This brings about very serious regional air pollution, especially when we head into the winter season where there is an increased used of energy from heating. More and more cars on the road also continue to aggravate the air pollution issue.

Fact: PM2.5 air pollution has led to a significant health and economic loss for China

Our 2012 report Dangerous Breathing calculated that if pollution levels remained the same as 2010, 8,572 premature deaths would have been caused by PM2.5 in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Xi'an in 2012, with a total economic loss of 1.08 billion USD. These numbers are simply too large to be ignored.

Fact: Individuals can lessen their risk of exposure

As this pollution issue continues to worsen, the eastern China population needs to be instructed as to how to reduce exposure during the most polluted days. This includes avoiding outdoor activities, and if possible using proper PM2.5 filtering masks. Surgical masks are useless, since they are designed for medical hygiene.