New pollution figures on way ... in five years
The mainland's top environmental watchdog has finally unveiled a timetable for long-awaited reform of outdated air pollution standards amid mounting public pressure.
But instead of directly answering calls for immediate public access to official data on smog-related fine particles, the environmental ministry set a distant deadline of 2016 for its mandatory release.
The latest development, the culmination of weeks of debate between environmental authorities and increasingly environmentally aware urbanites, is disappointing. It seems the public, yearning for the truth about pollution, will have to wait years for answers.
Environmentalists have said that the repeated delays in expanding the pollution-monitoring perimeters to include tiny airborne particles of less than 2.5 microns in diameter, known as PM2.5, exposed official abhorrence of the truth and continued to give a back seat to the environment and public welfare.
They also explain why Beijing is facing a mounting credibility crisis.
On one hand, officials from Premier Wen Jiabao to Vice-Premier Li Keqiang to Environmental Protection Minister Zhou Shengxian have all acknowledged that the conspicuous failure to include PM2.5 in pollution standards has fuelled public distrust in the government's pollution readings.
But on the other hand the government has still refused to release PM2.5 data for cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, where such data is available.
'It's not that mainland cities lack the technical capacity to monitor PM2.5, or that the public is raising unreasonable demands for pollution data that the government has yet to grasp,' Wang Yongchen , founder of Beijing NGO Green Earth Volunteers, said.
'It is all about transparency and the government's unwillingness to face up to the grim truth of air pollution.'
Beijing's reluctance to take a decisive move towards greater transparency has also given rise to criticism that the government continues to play politics with urban air pollution problems. It is a familiar charge often brought up when mainlanders point fingers at the country's other environmental woes and their shocking social and economic consequences.
Wang Gengchen, an expert on pollution from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told the Guangzhou-based Southern Weekly newspaper that the main reason behind Beijing's indecisiveness was a fear that the reality of air pollution was too bleak and depressing to be made public.
He said air-quality issues such as monitoring standards and information dissemination 'are not just about science, they are more about [mainland] politics'.
It is no secret that appalling air degradation and pollution woes have taken a toll on public health, but recent revelations about pollution-induced deadly diseases in Beijing and Shanghai are still deeply unsettling.
According to the Beijing Institute for Cancer Research, cancer replaced heart disease in 2007 as the top killer in the capital, causing a quarter of all deaths there.
And in Shanghai, a city of more than 20 million people, the rate is even higher. Fudan University cancer expert Tang Zhaoyou said 80 per cent of cancer cases were caused by air and water pollution and food contamination.
Mao Yu, a deputy director of the capital's public health bureau, told Caijing Magazine that there had been a startling increase in lung cancer cases of nearly 60 per cent over the past decade, which could be partly attributed to the city's persistent smog and other air pollution woes.
Medical experts tend to agree that, although smoking remains the top cause for lung cancer, deteriorating air quality has increased the risk of cancer among the general public, according to New Century magazine.
'Cancer is an environment-induced disease,' Dr Han Baohui, from the Shanghai Chest Hospital, told the magazine when explaining the relationship between the surge in lung cancer cases and widespread urban pollution.
According to the report, the apparent increase in lung cancer cases among non-smokers is further proof of the link between cancer and environmental pollution.
The latest revelations have also confirmed assertions by deputy environmental protection minister Pan Yue , who said in 2005 that up to 80 per cent of all deadly cancer cases in Beijing were linked to pollution.
The compelling evidence of the health impact of breathing filthy air, especially fine particles, does not include the latest mortality statistics.
The most recent figures, released in 2006, showed that about 358,000 urban dwellers in 600 cities died prematurely in 2004 from breathing polluted air, with an estimated health cost of 152.7 billion yuan (HK$186.6 billion). The severity of smog pollution, mostly from the burning of fossil and other types of fuel, is also linked to economic development levels, according to minister Zhou.
He said most developed regions across the mainland, such as the Pearl River Delta, the Yangtze River Delta and the region covering Beijing and Tianjin, were among the worst hit by high concentrations of fine particles. For up to half of the year, smog shrouds Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Shanghai, Nanjing, Tianjin and Suzhou .
And there is another interesting footnote that may help illustrate the grave impact of poor air quality on the mainland: breathing polluted air in the capital is supposedly the equivalent of smoking 21 high-tar cigarettes a day.
That's the claim Shi Yuzhu, a businessman who runs online game operator Giant Interactive, put on his microblog late last year, citing pollution-monitoring data from Broad Group, a Hunan-based manufacturer of air purifiers.
'If I live in Lijiang [Yunnan] and smoke 20 cigarettes a day, the health impact is comparable to a non-smoker living in Beijing,' he said.
It's no secret that pollution woes have taken a toll on public health, but revelations about pollution-induced deadly diseases in Beijing and Shanghai are deeply unsettling