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Environmental Problems are Price of Progress in China

Modern sources of toxins, traditional pollution threaten health of millions

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Philip Graitcer

China's rapid economic growth has pulled millions of the country's residents out of poverty, but a new report says the environmental impacts of this progress is threatening the health of hundreds of millions more.

Environmental scientist Justin Remais notes that as China's economy has grown 10-fold over the past 15 years, the country's environment has been degrading.

"China has reached this stage of development where traditional environmental risks are overlapping with environmental risks that are modern," says Remais.

As China's economy has grown 10-fold over the past 15 years, the country's environment has been degrading
As China's economy has grown 10-fold over the past 15 years, the country's environment has been degrading

'The worst of both worlds'

Remais, an assistant professor at Emory University's Rollins School of Public Health in Atlanta, explains the growing economy is fueling environmental risks such as air pollution and chemical toxins, while age-old environmental challenges remain.

"Traditional environmental risks are those that face largely the poor in China, risks like drinking water contaminated with infectious organisms or highly polluted indoor air from people burning wood or other dirty fuels inside homes without chimneys."

Remais and his colleagues searched government documents and science reports published over the past 20 years to quantify and assess China's environmental health. They found that indoor air pollution causes pulmonary diseases that kill an estimated 420 thousand people per year. Outdoor air pollution accounts for another 470 thousand deaths.

These risks most severely affect the poor, Remais says. "China has reduced extreme poverty through economic growth, but until very recently has overlooked the growing inequalities in health and health determinants like access to clean air, water, and sanitation."

A path to improvement

But in spite of these disparities, Remais is optimistic that progress can be made.

"The good news is that when China sets its sights on reducing pollution, it has shown an extraordinary ability to reduce emissions," he observes, pointing to the very substantial cuts in air pollution emissions during the 2008 summer Olympics in the Beijing metropolitan area.

He notes that broad policy changes that reduce reliance on fuels like coal and wood are being implemented and are beginning to have a positive impact on life expectancy.

The study was published in the British medical journal, The Lancet.

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