How bad is air pollution?

Tiananmen Square from March 4th to March 17th this year. Source: Wei Yao at Beijing Review

With the haze getting out of control again recently, we all want to know how what air pollution really means for our health. Anyone who was in Malaysia and Singapore during the haze would be aware that breathing the air was not akin to a herbal bath or a spring meadow, but what about the long term effects?

Indonesia has apologised for the smoke, caused by forest fires in the country. According to the Air Quality Index, which measures the five major air pollutants regulated by the Clean Air Act: ground-level ozone, particle pollution, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide, anything above 100 is unhealthy for sensitive groups, and anything above 300 is hazardous. See details on how it is calculated here. During the days of haze, the air quality index surpassed 700 in some areas of Johor.

Source: Airnow Air Quality Index

Source: Airnow Air Quality Index

Air pollution is nothing new. All industrialised nations have experienced some degree or other of air pollution on the path to industrialisation. If we want to observe the long term effects of air pollution, China is a very interesting example, not because the phenomenon of air pollution is unique to China, but because the mobility in China has been low for many years, because of the so-called “Hukou“-system, which has effectively bound Chinese citizens to the same place their entire life.

According to this article in National Geographic, a study comparing total suspended particulates in northern and southern China has found evidence that air pollutants and coal in particular shorten life expectancies. The below numbers are staggering:

“The air concentration of total suspended particulates (TSP) in the north was 55 percent higher than in the south, and life expectancies were 5.52 years lower, between 1981 and 2000″

“Long-term exposure to each additional 100 micrograms per cubic meter of TSP is associated with reduction in life expectancy at birth of about three years”.

The article hypothesises that the higher numbers in northern China could be due to an old policy of giving free coal to citizens above the Huai river, and subsequently subsidising it – causing more coal to be burned in the colder cities up north.

Shijiazhuang in China, where I lived for over 2 years, has repeatedly been ranked as one of the cities with the worst air pollution in China. While I did feel the soot in my snot and my breathing getting worse despite exercising more, I had the option to move. The people who live there are bound to stay there, if not by Hukou regulations, then by family ties.

Source: Bobak, Wikipedia

Source: Bobak, Wikipedia

The many pictures of Beijing’s sky with and without pollution speak for themselves. Particularly in the featured image (of 14 days at Tiananmen Square), we can see the staggering contrast.

Be it because of coal, forest fires or other particle matter, the long term effects of air pollution are ostensibly not negligible. Unfortunately (or fortunately) it is hard to compare the long-term effects of pollution elsewhere, because people in other countries have not been limited by Hukou-like systems.

In Malaysia, the haze season has been a recurring event since the ’90s. If constant exposure to pollution in China is proven to have tangible effects on life expectancy, we have reason to extend that the same results would apply to Malaysia, at a lesser degree. At the end of the day, it still boils down to the question of how much quality of life (or indeed, life itself) we are willing to sacrifice, in exchange for unsustainable growth and resource exploitation.

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