To Build a Fire

A new study suggests that China’s Huai River policy, which guarantees free winter heating to anyone living north of the Huai river, may be costing citizens far more than supplying their own heat would.

The study, published in this month’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, draws a connection between increased mortality rates and the high levels of pollution caused by China’s policy. The policy promises free coal for boilers to any who live north of the arbitrary line drawn at the Huai river, which has led to a clear discrepancy in ambient levels of total suspended particles (TSPs).

The authors found that above the river concentrations were 184 μg/m3, or 55%, higher than below the Huai. Along with this, the north shows an average decrease in life expectancy of 5.5 years during the 1990s, the period that the study examined. The study calculates that, collectively, the 500 million inhabitants of northern China lost 2.5 billion, that’s right, billion life years as a result of cardiorespiratory causes of death linked to increased TSP levels, such as strokes, lung cancer, or heart disease.

At the same time, China’s government has recently begun a new campaign to champion environmental protection. According to a recent statement, the State Council plans to boost the energy saving sector’s output to 4.5 trillion yuan, or $728 billion, by 2015. It will implement a series of programs and standards to encourage the production and use of energy saving technology.

This study’s findings lend another dimension of urgency to the mounting issue of pollution in China. Much of the public discussion seems to be surrounding the impact of industry and production on the environment, but as this study shows, pollution can often extend from seemingly harmless public policy and have very serious concerns with regards to human health.

The Interesting Technical Stuff:

The study’s set up benefited from the unique format of the policy, which created a division similar to the control and experimental groups of most controlled studies. Since the policy created two clearly defined regions of what would become high pollution (north of the river) and low pollution (south of the river), the study could approach the data in a quasi-experimental manner.

Large scale environmental studies such as this, which focus heavily on how long term environmental factors affect humans, can be very difficult to carry out due to high levels of migration. Luckily, because of China’s hukou system, which tightly regulates any and all movements between urban and rural areas based on family registration in either type of are, many of the individuals used in the study had lived in one place, or very nearly, for their entire lives.

The data used in the study is the most comprehensive data file ever compiled to evaluate mortality and air pollution. Researches combined data from electronic sources obtained from a World Bank project and Chinese-language publications, such as the Chinese Environmental Yearbook.

Beyond pollution levels and cause of death, the study also took into account other factors from a 2000 census which may have affected health outcomes, such as average education of residents, manufacturing’s share of employment, percentage of residents with urban registration under the hukou system, and percentage of citizens with tap water.

Original article: http://www.pnas.org/content/110/32/12936

Further reading on recent China policy: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/chinas-choice/2013/aug/14/china-investment-energy-saving-pollution

http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2013-08/12/content_16886256.htm

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