In what has become a recurring story, China is once again suffering the ravages of fossil fuel emissions. This time, a heat wave in May shattered records across the country, while scientists discovered that more toxic heavy metals are present in China’s air pollution than previously thought.
According to Weather Underground, Beijing hit 41.1°C (106°F) on Friday May 30th, blowing past its previous May record of 38.3°C (100.9°F) back in 1968. The city’s all-time record high for any month remains 42.6°C (108.7°F) in June of 1942.
Also on May 30th, the city of Tianjin hit 40.5°C (104.9°F), which pulls even with its all-time heat records for any month. Shijiazhuang, which lies 180 miles southwest of Beijing, reached 42.8°C (109.0°F) that day — coming in only slightly behind the city’s all-time record for any month of 42.9°C (109.2°F), which happened on the relatively recent July 15, 2002. Finally, the Chinese cities of Bught and Tongliao broke through their all-time records on May 31st, coming in at 38.0°C (100.4°F) and 39.4°C (102.9°F) respectively. The cities had set their previous highs in 2001 and 2007.
Other areas of Asia, including South Korea and Mongolia, also broke heat records for May or came close to breaking them.
Global temperatures have been following a similar pattern. The National Climactic Data Center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration marked April 2014 as the hottest April ever recorded, with data going all the way back to 1880. It was also the 38th April in a row — and the 350th of any month in a row — in which global temperatures exceeded their 20th Century average. And northern Asia specifically experienced an unusually hot departure from the norm.
At the same time, new research published on Friday found that air pollution made of fine particles — called PM2.5 — are not only at excessively high levels in many Chinese cities, but also contain exceedingly high levels of potentially toxic metals. The metallic particles include elements like zinc, chromium, copper, magnesium, lithium, nickel, cobalt, arsenic, and selenium, which can lead to health problems such as premature aging, cancer, and — in the case of zinc combining with oxygen — genetic damage. PM2.5 particles of all sorts can also drive increases in cardiovascular disease, lung inflammation, asthma, and premature death.
“While the general level of PM2.5 in China is five or six times higher than in the U.S., the amount of trace metals could be 10 or even 20 times higher,” said Li Weijun, a professor of environmental science at Shandong University in Jinan. “Damage to health caused by fine particulates is not only determined by the quantity of particles, but also what type they are.”
Weijun and a team of scientists have been gathering data on airborne particles in China since 2003, leading to what is probably the biggest data bank of airborne particles in the country.
Weijun also pointed to the collection of power plants and factories in China’s Pearl River Delta as a major likely contributor to the problem. Air pollution made of heavy metals and particles is especially a problem when it comes to emissions from coal-fired power plants. With 70 to 80 percent of the country’s electricity produced by coal, China is the biggest consumer and producer of coal in the world.
As a result, the country also recently became the globe’s biggest carbon dioxide emitter, helping to drive the climate change that’s bringing those record heat waves.
China has also seen a tide of smog and air pollution roll through its major cities for extended periods over the last few months, with several days in a row hitting levels of pollution many times above internationally accepted safety standards.