Pollution in China is More Than a Public Health Threat

In March 2013, Premier Li Keqiang declared “war on pollution” but one year later, 90% of China’s biggest cities still fail to meet air quality standards. Granted that this still an improvement over last year, but it’s clear that they have a very long way to go before air quality in areas like Shanghai and Beijing become safe places to live and work. The pollution isn’t just a problem for public health reasons, but also its economic health.

In order to protect its ailing citizens and decrease the amount of pollution in the air, state regulators have been ordering the closure of most “offending enterprises”, according to The Economist. Combined with the economic slowdown in China, those who have been laid off due to these closures have a difficult time finding new jobs to support their families. Foreign companies that operate within China are also having difficulty recruiting senior executives from abroad because of the failing air quality. Most companies have had to offer a “hardship bonus” to those they hire as compensation for living in these conditions.


Let’s pause for a moment and take a look at what exactly the air quality is like and how it’s measured. The Air Quality Index (AQI) is measured based on the presence and levels of particulates, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen dioxide in the air (to name a few). This could range anywhere between 0 and 500. The World Health Organization considers an AQI of 25 to be considered safe. But for many urban areas in China, the AQI could be anywhere between 100 and 500; sometimes more. Exposure to such levels after extended periods of time are known to cause both cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. In fact, it’s been shown to decrease life expectancy by 5.5 years.

According to an MIT study, published in the journal Global Environmental Change, there was an estimated $112 Billion lost in 2005 due to “lost labor and an increased need for health care.” The long-term effect on the health of China’s citizens puts a strain on the economy that cannot be undone overnight. The “war on pollution” is not a war that will be over anytime soon. But with determination and (most importantly) cooperation it’s a battle than can be won. We can hope that in time, improved conditions in China’s urban landscape will lead to additional economic growth.