An analysis conducted by physicists at the University of California, Berkeley has determined that air pollution in China contributes to roughly 17 percent of all deaths in the country. That translates to approximately 1.6 million deaths each year or 4,383 per day.
The findings were published on Thursday in the online peer-reviewed journal PLOS One. According to the International Business Times, this is the first study to draw on newly-released air quality data from China. Researchers Robert A. Rohde and Richard A. Muller write that the data was collected from hourly air pollution readings from over 1,500 sites.
Rohde, who was the study’s lead author, told the Associated Press that 38 percent of the Chinese population lives in an area with long-term air quality that the US Environmental Protection Agency would classify as “unhealthy.”
“It’s a very big number,” said Rohde. He added that “nearly everyone in China experiences air that is worse for particulates than the worst air in the U.S.”
Case in point, the American Lung Association calculates that Madera, California has the highest annual average of small airborne particles in the United States. These particles are what make up the haze or smog associated with industrial pollution. According to Rohde, the air in 99.9 percent of the eastern half of China is more polluted than Madera’s.
This is hardly the first time China’s toxic smog has made headlines. Measurements of PM2.5 (particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter) regularly rise above 500 micrograms in Beijing. For comparison, an Air Quality Index measurement above 100 ug is considered an unhealthy level of pollution for “sensitive groups,” whereas an AQI above 150 is unhealthy to the general populace. A study released last year showed that 670,000 premature deaths in China in 2012 could be linked to PM2.5.
What makes PM2.5 so dangerous? The product of industrial processes and combustion activities, such as burning coal and car exhaust, particles under 2.5 micrometers can lodge deep in human tissue and lungs, leading to strokes, coronary heart disease and obstructive pulmonary disease.
According to the study, “Sources of pollution are widespread but are particularly intense in a northeast corridor that extends from near Shanghai to north of Beijing. Extensive pollution is not surprising since particulate matter can remain airborne for days to weeks and travel thousands of kilometers.”
During the year-long study period (August 5, 2014 to August 5, 2015), researchers found that over 90 percent of China’s population experienced at least 120 hours of polluted air.
The sheer volume of smog is a source of growing concern in China and led Prime Minister Li Keqiang to declare a “war against pollution” last year.