50 Shades of Greyjing: China’s Air Pollution Crisis

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            If you’ve read the news the past few weeks, you’ve noticed an increase in articles with phrases such as “face-mask nation,” “air-pocalypse,” and “Greyjing,” the city of Beijing’s not-so-illustrious nickname.  It’s no surprise that China has been facing worsening smog conditions in their urban areas, but public concern is growing. Last month, the city of Harbin was all but shut down after the PM2.5 rating reached an index of 1,000.[1] For reference, levels above 300 are considered dangerous to public health and the WHO advises a daily level not exceeding 20. PM2.5, meaning particulate matter with a 2.5micrometer diameter, is a dangerous particle found in the air that enters the blood stream and lungs. [2]  Harbin was forced to shut down airports, limit bus routes, and close schools due to the dangerous conditions and limited visibility. Sixteen of the twenty most polluted cities in the world are in China, making this air pollution crisis increasingly infamous.[3] All eyes are on China as, amid public outcry, the government finally takes action.

            As the saying goes, one must hit rock bottom before realizing a problem is so bad that it needs drastic treatment. One might say China hit rock bottom last week, when a young Chinese girl was diagnosed with lung cancer at the age of 8, making her the youngest lung cancer patient in China. Her cancer, her doctor confirmed, was due to exposure to PM2.5. [4]  In China, lung cancer is a growing problem as more of the Chinese population die of lung cancer each year than from any other cancer.[5] Over the last 30 years, lung cancer rates have increased by 465 percent, despite no reported increase in Chinese smoking habits.[6]

            With air pollution in China contributing to 1.2 million premature deaths in 2010 and an estimated reduction in life expectancy by 5.5 years in northern China, poor air quality has become a problem that the government can no longer ignore.[7],[8] China has proposed a five-year study to monitor the long-term impact of air pollution on human health.[9] In addition to increased monitoring tactics, the government also plans to spend approximately $817 billion on a plan to cut pollution drastically by 2017.[10] But with air quality reaching crisis states and public opinions growing more and more dissatisfied, will the plan be enough? And what obstacles will the Chinese face as they seek to implement reform?


[1] Blanchard, Ben. Huffington Post. Health Effects of Air Pollution to be Monitored in China as Smog Raises Safety Concerns, Oct. 28th, 2013. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/28/health-effects-of-air-pollution-china_n_4169696.html&gt;

[2] Ibid.

[3] The Week. November 15th, 2013. Pg.9

[4] Duggan, Jennifer. The Guardian. November 7th, 2013. China’s Air Pollution Blamed for 8 Year Old’s Lung Cancer. < http://www.theguardian.com/environment/chinas-choice/2013/nov/07/china-air-pollution-eight-year-old-cancer&gt;

[5] Ibid.

[6] The Week. November 15th, 2013. Pg.9

[7] Ibid.

[8] Blanchard, Ben. Huffington Post. Health Effects of Air Pollution to be Monitored in China as Smog Raises Safety Concerns, Oct. 28th, 2013. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/28/health-effects-of-air-pollution-china_n_4169696.html&gt;

[9] Ibid.

[10] The Week. November 15th, 2013. Pg.9

Photo: Philippe Lopez Getty Images. As seen in Huffington Post, September 3rd, 2013. Fake Hong Kong Skyline Gives Tourists a Better Backdrop, Ignores Pollution Problems. 

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