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.

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