News

Air Pollution Presents Health Challenge for China's Children

Barbara Howard

Cyclists rides through the polluted air beside Beijing's Tiananmen Square (Feb. 2001 photo)
China has some of the worst air pollution on the planet - some experts say 16 of the world's 20 most polluted cities are in China. That dirty air is affecting the country's health - respiratory diseases are a leading cause of death in China, and Chinese officials say respiratory infection is the number one childhood disease. Barbara Howard spoke with experts and visited several pediatric hospital wards in Beijing, and found parents and doctors resigned to the health problems children suffer because of bad air.

When it comes to air pollution, Beijing faces the three "C"s, cars, coal and construction. All three contribute to Beijing's thick air pollution, which damages residents' health, especially that of children. Pan Xiao-chuan, a professor at Beijing University's School of Public Health, says the number of children with acute respiratory infection (ARI) is on the rise.

"Yes, we could call it a trend," he said. "With the density of nitrogen dioxide increasing, the number of children suffering from ARI will increase. Some develop pneumonia symptoms, and that can be deadly."

A United Nations report in 2002 said that 23,000 respiratory deaths, 13,000 fatal heart disease cases and 15 million cases of bronchitis in China were attributed to air pollution that year. Two Chinese University researchers recently concluded that by immediately reducing Shanghai's air pollution, up to 5,000 deaths could be prevented over the next five years.

At Beijing Children's Hospital, Deputy Director Yang Yong-kong believes pneumonia is the number one killer of children. He says that since he became a doctor in the 1960s, he has seen a dramatic rise in asthma cases as well.

"When I was a young doctor, in that time there was not so many [cases] but in recent years it is getting more and more," he said. "In Beijing, nearly double."

But when it comes to reducing the damage from air pollution, Dr. Yang has no answers.

"That is not my business how to improve this problem. You mean how to reduce the air pollution? No idea from here," he said.

Chinese homes and factories rely on coal for 80 percent of their heating and energy needs. In this super-charged economy, factory smokestacks and home chimneys belch out tons of pollutants.

Since the early 1990s, the number of private cars in China has soared. Two million now crowd Beijing's streets, and the number is expected to go up 50 percent in a few years. China uses gasoline made from cheap oil, which emits more pollutants than costlier oil. The Environmental Protection Agency says gasoline causes nearly 80 percent of China's smog.

And then there is the unprecedented demolition and construction under way as China's economy surges and Beijing prepares for the 2008 Olympics. As old buildings are knocked down and new ones rise, they produce a layer of fine dust coating everything.

A glance out the hospital window on this day shows the result. Buildings just a city block away are mere featureless hulks, and the sun, high in the yellow sky, is a faintly glowing disc.

China's state-controlled media puts a positive spin on the struggle with air pollution, citing government promises to reduce auto emissions, plant thousands of trees before the Olympics, and move belching factories to the edge of town.

At the pediatric intake waiting room at Beijing University Third Hospital, it is standing room only. Children are poked and prodded, and those with respiratory problems are sent with their parents to an adjacent room where each child is hooked up to an intravenous line to receive antibiotics.

Li Lal Shu, 10, has been diagnosed with pneumonia. She sits patiently as the fluid drips into her arm.

"This is the third day I'm here for an infusion," she said.

Her mother, Li Shu Jen, talks about her daughter's illness.

"I figure that she probably got the disease from her schoolmates, and she doesn't like to drink water and that might be a factor," she said. "But also I think that my daughter's own anti-virus system isn't so good."

Several parents at the hospital say their children fell ill because they were not dressed warmly enough or because the weather or because other children got sick. Few of them mention air pollution as a factor.

The most serious cases are admitted to the ward upstairs. Two-year-old Deng Gee whimpers in her father's lap. She has pneumonia and her father Deng Bin says it started with a cough, but he does not think pollution affects his daughter's health.

"There's no authoritative evidence to prove that, so I cannot say that it's the air," he said. "Moreover, there are many children who have this disease, and always in this season."

In the next room, a woman helps her 13-year-old son as he coughs. His mother has a pretty good idea why he has pneumonia. She remembers a cleaner city when she moved to Beijing 20 years ago.

"When I began living here in 1984, it's very clear," she said. "The sky is blue, the air is fresh. I think it is a good city. But it's different now here. It's too terrible for us, because we see the city become … the air is become … bad and bad … worse and worse. Yeah, it's not a good thing for us because we have children living in this city, and we worry about their health."

She has her own theory about why many parents do not link the air pollution to their children's illnesses.

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOAi
X
August 31, 2015 2:17 AM
Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOA

Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video War, Drought Threaten Iraq's Marshlands

Iraq's southern wetlands are in crisis. These areas are the spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, a resting place for migrating wildfowl, and source of livelihood for fishermen and herders. Faith Lapidus has more.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Rebuilding New Orleans' Music Scene

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans, threatening to wash away its vibrant musical heritage along with its neighborhoods, the beat goes on. As Bronwyn Benito and Faith Lapidus report, a Musicians' Village is preserving the city's unique sound.
Video

Video In Russia, Auto Industry in Tailspin

Industry insiders say country relies too heavily on imports as inflation cuts too many consumers out of the market. Daniel Schearf has more from Moscow.
Video

Video Scientist Calls Use of Fetal Tissue in Medical Research Essential

An anti-abortion group responsible for secret recordings of workers at a women's health care organization claims the workers shown are offering baby parts for sale, a charge the organization strongly denies. While the selling of fetal tissue is against the law in the United States, abortion and the use of donated fetal tissue for medical research are both legal. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.

VOA Blogs