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PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 28 December, 2012, 5:43am

Worst air pollution results of year in China barely noticed by public

First study on microscopic airborne particles greeted with indifference by public and media, amid heavy focus on party's new leadership

Mainland environmental officials must have breathed an ironic sigh of relief this month when some of the worst air pollution readings of the year in most cities went largely unnoticed, barely prompting any public discussion.

Unlike the nationwide outcry over worsening smog problems a year ago, most mainlanders appear to have had their eyes glued to the palace intrigues and power struggles exposed in the months leading up to the Communist Party's generational leadership transition last month.

Even more worryingly from an environmental perspective, some deeply troubling recent revelations about the risks of breathing the dirty air in mainland cities attracted little attention from the media or the public.

The study by mainland scientists offered some clues about just how dangerous it is to live in areas with too much air pollution.

Nearly 2,600 people were expected to die prematurely in Beijing this year due to pollution from smog-causing fine particles, known as PM2.5, while the death toll in Shanghai was expected to top 3,300.

It was the first time that mainland pollution experts had singled out PM2.5 - microscopic airborne particles less than 2.5 microns in diameter - from among dozens of health-threatening pollutants.

The World Health Organisation says PM2.5, roughly a 28th of the diameter of a human hair, poses a far more serious health hazard than bigger particles such as PM10 - with a diameter of 10 microns - and many other pollutants because fine particles can be absorbed deep into the bloodstream and cause lung cancer and other deadly diseases.

Although the study, jointly released last week by Peking University's school of public health and Greenpeace East Asia, has shed some much needed light on a vitally important public health issue, it is worth noting that it is far from comprehensive enough to paint a full picture of the health risks posed by PM2.5 pollution.

Air pollution expert Pan Xiaochuan said the scope and accuracy of the study had been significantly restricted due to a lack of adequate data - access to which is tightly controlled by the government.

"We have long been prepared for this kind of study, but we simply don't have access to sufficient and credible data, which is the single most important reason that we lag behind many other countries in finding out the links between air pollution and public health," Pan said. He and Greenpeace campaigner Zhou Rong , who both helped draft the report, were candid about the limitations of the study, which did not include statistics about deadly, chronic diseases caused by long-term exposure to PM2.5, or those about the accumulated health costs.

It remains unclear if those statistics are readily available at all, with many experts saying the mainland authorities have yet to approve any studies of the long-term health effects of living with poor air quality.

But why is that? Are mainland leaders unaware of the danger of air pollution?

That's certainly not the case, with top leaders inside the secretive Zhongnanhai compound in central Beijing turning on air purifiers to cope with smog problems just days after the 2008 Olympics.

And it is no secret that air pollution kills people. Citing a World Bank report, Achim Steiner, former head of the UN Environment Programme, said during the Beijing Olympics that there were more than 200,000 premature deaths on the mainland each year as a result of air pollution, with the cost of pollution estimated at US$100 billion a year.

Some experts said the mainland authorities had suppressed the World Bank report.

Although Beijing has included PM2.5 in pollution parameters and allowed limited access to real-time PM2.5 monitoring data after coming under public pressure, it still lacks the sincerity to face the bleak reality and continues to play hide and seek on this issue.

Several mainland experts complain that the authorities have grown more sensitive about air pollution studies. The government used to tolerate some pilot research projects.

One, unveiled in 2006, found that about 358,000 residents of 600 mainland cities died prematurely in 2004 from breathing polluted air, with an estimated health cost of 152.7 billion yuan.

Another leading pollution scientist, who asked not to be named, said the government, including the environment ministry, now "simply refuse to do any research regarding the health effects of air pollution".

"They don't want to do it and they won't allow academic research to go ahead," the scientist said. "They don't give a damn about the environment."

jiangtao.shi@scmp.com

 

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