The following censorship instructions, issued to the media by government authorities, have been leaked and distributed online. The name of the issuing body has been omitted to protect the source.
The directive targets a recently recirculated two-year-old news story, translated below, on a study of the public health impact of PM2.5—airborne particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter. The study it describes appears to contradict a National Health and Family Planning Commission official’s statement last month that “it is too early to come to conclusions regarding smog’s danger to health, particularly its long-term effects on the body.” The article also highlights the study’s prediction that if air quality improvement goals for 2017 were met in the 21 cities that had then set them, this could save some 26,000 lives. chinadialogue reported last month that while some cities hit their targets well ahead of time, others are struggling. Beijing, despite its general improvement, faces a particularly steep climb. The capital’s mayor announced a new round of “extraordinary” measures over the weekend.
Heavy smog over the winter has recharged the political sensitivity of air pollution data, bringing a round of new information controls, and information controls on the information controls. Popular science writer Tang Yinghong discussed the lack of transparency surrounding the causes and effects of smog in a recent essay translated by CDT.
Meanwhile, a team at the University of Southern California has written that high levels of particulate air pollution could be behind over a fifth of dementia cases, potentially exacerbating an already looming “crisis” among China’s elderly.
Peking University Research Team: 260,000 Excess Deaths From PM2.5 in 31 Cities; Highest Rate in Shijiazhuang
On February 4, the first research paper on the long-term public health impact of PM2.5 was released.
The research indicates that in 2013, PM2.5 atmospheric pollution caused 257,000 excess deaths across 31 municipalities and provincial capitals around China, with the excess death rate approaching 1 in 1,000. The 12 “leaders” in terms of death rate were, in order, Shijiazhuang, Jinan, Changsha, Chengdu, Nanjing, Wuhan, Nanchang, Hefei, Tianjin, Harbin, Chongqing, and Shenyang.
According to the latest official statistics to be made public, the death rate from smoking in 2012 was 0.7 per thousand, while the rate from traffic accidents was 0.09 per thousand.
The team, led by Professor Pan Xiaochuan of Peking University’s School of Public Hygiene, spent a year completing the report. Pan Xiaochuan told The Paper that “excess deaths” means the number of people who would have survived were it not for such severe PM2.5 pollution. He stressed that the number of excess deaths indicate the “degree of relative danger,” implying a heightened risk of death. The higher the number of excess deaths, the greater the health hazards to residents.
This paper, entitled “Dangerous Respiration 2: A Study of Atmospheric PM2.5’s Effects on Chinese Urban Public Health,” notes that the above findings are restricted to deaths from coronary artery disease, disorders of the brain’s blood vessels, lung cancer, and chronic lung congestion, and do not yet include other illnesses.
The researchers urge that efforts to combat pollution should not simply be a matter of bringing down PM2.5 concentrations.
The research indicates that the greater surface area of PM2.5 compared with PM10 or larger particulate matter enables it to easily accumulate all kinds of harmful chemical substances such as heavy metals and acidic oxides, and organic pollutants from the air, as well as viruses, bacteria and other microorganisms. It also accelerates the dissolution and reaction times of toxic materials.
Therefore, the report calls on the government to bring PM2.5 pollution under control more quickly, to reduce related public health costs as much as possible.
Pan Xiaochuan stresses that the government’s air pollution control policies should be based on public health impact assessment, not simply on local PM2.5 concentrations, in order to benefit public health.
Pan Xiaochuan said that the newly published report’s scope was much broader than that of a four-city study in 2012, with the inclusion 31 cities fuller PM2.5 monitoring data, so its conclusions are more exact.
The research follows the WHO’s air quality standards analysis that exposure to annual average PM2.5 levels of 10μg/m3 or below is not harmful to public health. But papers from many domestic and international researchers (including research on short-term acute health effects of PM2.5) have stated that there is no lower limit for harm to public health from PM2.5, and health levels may suffer even in populations exposed to extremely low concentrations.
Meeting control targets would save 26,000 lives.
Data and modeling presented the greatest challenges to Pan’s team in the current study.
On one hand was missing data, Pan said; on the other, figures from some departments that were inconsistent or inaccurate. Although the final report only provides conclusions on 31 municipalities and provincial capitals, the team actually gathered PM2.5 monitoring data on more than 100 cities.
In addition, the lack of suitable research models was also a thorny problem. Pan said frankly that there had been very few domestic [studies on] public health effects of long-term PM2.5 exposure. They tried various models with unstable results until 2014, when an internationally recognized research model was published and finally adopted by Pan’s team.
Pan Xiaochuan hopes that through this research the public can gain direct insight into the situation regarding PM2.5 pollution’s health effects, and that it will remind both public and government to attach greater importance to environmental protection work.
At present, 21 cities around the country have set explicit PM2.5 reduction targets for 2017. “Dangerous Respiration 2” suggests that there will be 26,000 fewer excess deaths across these 21 cities if these goals are met.
According to a Xinhua report from January 15 2014, Pan notes, a meeting of the International Agency for Research on Cancer meeting in Lyons identified air pollution as a cause of cancer. “Actually they were specifically saying that airborne particulate matter, what we call PM2.5, is a confirmed human carcinogen.” [Chinese]
Since directives are sometimes communicated orally to journalists and editors, who then leak them online, the wording published here may not be exact. Some instructions are issued by local authorities or to specific sectors, and may not apply universally across China. The date given may indicate when the directive was leaked, rather than when it was issued. CDT does its utmost to verify dates and wording, but also takes precautions to protect the source. See CDT’s collection of Directives from the Ministry of Truth since 2011.