China syndrome: Polluted air is taking its toll on more than cities

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Visitors can smell it while waiting for a cab at the Beijing airport. They can see it hanging in the air, like L.A. smog, on the way into the city. China has a serious pollution problem and if it doesn’t bring it under control soon, the toll on its people will be high.

The latest proof of the economic giant’s unhealthy air was a report last week from the Ministry of Environmental Protection.

Only three of the 74 cities tracked by the central government in 2013 reached minimum standards for air quality. The lucky trio were Lhasa, Haikou and Zhoushan, in remote regions of the country.

The big offenders, including Beijing, were mostly in northern China, where dirty industries are prevalent. In that region, air standards were attained over little more than one-third of the days.

China’s pollution is a byproduct of its rapid modernization and urbanization.

Although it has posted strong numbers on economic growth, other statistics tell a different tale, of rising disease rates and new health threats.

A medical conference in Beijing last November reported that lung cancer had replaced liver as the leading cancer in the country, accounting for nearly 23 percent of the cancer deaths each year. China’s lung cancer deaths have jumped 465 percent in three decades. Columbia University researchers predicted that China’s cases of cardiovascular disease will rise by up to 73 percent by 2030.

Although factors besides unhealthful air contribute to these maladies, toxic emissions are a growing threat to public health in China’s cities. The severe air readings, which would trigger alerts in the United States for people to stay indoors, have made tourists and business travelers to China think twice about whether to visit.

Xi Jinping, who became president a year ago, promised forward-looking policies to help modern China meet its new challenges. But unless the country can control air pollution, it will be forced to spend ever greater shares of its economic gains on health care.

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