BEIJING – People in northern China may be dying five years sooner than expected because of diseases caused by air pollution, an unintended result of a decades-old policy providing free coal for heat, a study found.
Coal burning leading to heart disease, stroke, lung cancer and respiratory illnesses may cause the 500 million Chinese living north of the Huai River – a rough line dividing the country’s north and south – to lose an aggregate 2.5 billion years of life expectancy, according to the research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Tuesday.
The government provided free heating coal for people living north of the Huai River over a period of central planning from 1950 to 1980, and such indoor systems remain common today, the study showed. Burning coal in boilers is linked to the release of particulate matter that can be extremely harmful to humans, raising health costs and suggesting a move away from using fossil fuels would be attractive, according to Michael Greenstone, one of four authors of the study.
“This was an unintended consequence of the policy, showing that the health costs are substantially larger that we had previously understood,” Greenstone, a professor of environmental economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said in a phone interview. “It makes a movement away from the use of fossil fuels or the installation of pollution abatement equipment look much more attractive.”
The policy wasn’t implemented in the south because of budget constraints. The authors, who also comprise researchers from Peking University and Tsinghua University in Beijing, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, compiled air pollution data for 90 Chinese cities from 1981 to 2000 and analyzed 500,000 deaths recorded between 1991 and 2000.
They found that air pollution, as measured by total suspended particulates, was about 55 percent higher north of the river than south of it. Long-term exposure to every additional 100 micrograms of particulate matter per cubic meter cuts life expectancy at birth by three years.