In an official Chinese news report, doctors have diagnosed an 8-year-old girl with lung cancer and attributed the cause to air pollution. The girl, who remained unnamed, is the youngest ever to be diagnosed with lung cancer in China. According to the American Cancer Society, the average age for people acquiring the disease is about 70 years old.
The girl is from the eastern Chinese province of Jiangsu, which borders Shanghai and is home to the world’s leading exporters of electronic equipment, chemicals, and textiles. All the factories in the area make it one of the most polluted outside of northern China.
According to The New York Times, the report on the girl quoted Dr. Feng Dongjie, of Jiangsu Tumor Hospital in Nanjing where the girl is being treated, as saying that fine particulate matter, known as PM 2.5, could lead to inflammation once it accrues in the lungs and result in malignant changes.
Recent research from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organization, definitively linked air pollution to cancer and officially classified it as a carcinogen. IARC’s research found that in 2010 alone exposure to ambient fine particles was estimated to have contributed to 223,000 deaths from lung cancer, with more than half of those deaths projected to have been in China and other East Asian countries.
Another recent study, this one in Nature Climate Change, found that up to three million premature deaths could be avoided each year globally by 2100 if aggressive emissions cuts are made. By reducing carbon emissions, the study states, the world will also reduce “co-pollutants” such as ozone and particulates.
“It is pretty striking that you can make an argument purely on health grounds to control climate change,” said Jason West, one of the study’s lead authors.
In urban China the arguments for improving air quality are rarely far from sight. This year fine particulate matter has been of special concern as devastatingly smoggy conditions in northern China have caused spells of reduced visibility to less than 50 yards in some areas. Conditions like this can force school closings, road congestion, and even flight cancellations. Immediate impacts like this result in public demand for change, and thus government reaction.
Last week China’s Health Ministry announced China will begin measuring not just PM2.5 concentrations, but also the long-term impacts of chronic air pollution on human health.
Shanghai, near the 8-year-old’s hometown, also recently vowed to reduce annual average PM 2.5 concentrations by 20 percent from 2012 levels by 2017. The public will have access to the data on this process, so there is a degree of public accountability that holds the government responsible for its promises.