U.S. view: Tackling China’s environmental health crisis

By Yanzhong Huang,
Council on Foreign Relations, Senior Fellow for Global Health

After more than three decades of rapid industrialization and modernization, China is on the cusp of becoming the world’s largest economy. Yet China’s economic miracle has imposed tremendous social costs. One third of China’s major rivers and 60 percent of its underground water supplies are polluted due to poor environmental regulation and unbridled industralization. Such environmental problems pose a serious and sustained threat to the health and well-being of the Chinese people.

China faces three major environmental health hazards: air pollution, water pollution, and soil contamination. As early as 2007, a World Bank study found that the health costs of air and water pollution in China amounted to about 4.3 percent of China’s GDP. In 2012, PM2.5 particulate pollutants, considered to be the most hazardous to human health, were linked to 670,000 premature deaths from strokes, lung cancer, coronary heart disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. A 2013 study also found that air pollution is associated with a reduction in life expectancy at birth of about 5.5 years in northern China. Meanwhile, the widespread production and use of toxic chemicals in agriculture and manufacturing industries have contaminated water and farmland, contributing to the emergence of more than four hundred “cancer villages,” areas where cancer rates are unusually high. Read more

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