As pollution soars, cancer is now the leading cause of death in China

The Earth Policy Institute reported on figures today showing that cancer is now the leading cause of death in China, accounting for a quarter of all deaths in the country. The most common type? Lung cancer — caused in large part by increasingly foul air due to a heavy reliance on coal:

Deaths from this typically fatal disease have shot up nearly fivefold since the 1970s. In China’s rapidly growing cities, like Shanghai and Beijing, where particulates in the air are often four times higher than in New York City, nearly 30 percent of cancer deaths are from lung cancer.

The figures, which were compiled from the Chinese Ministry of Health, show the other side of China’s rush to develop new sources of energy. In the case of lung cancer, the bad air is compounded by soaring tobacco use.

The Chinese are, rightfully, seen as aggressively pursuing leadership in clean energy, while America falls behind. (I’ve used it to frame the debate too — and given how fast China is building projects and growing its manufacturing base, Americans better pay attention.)


But that comparison often ignores the broader picture in the country. Sure, China is beating us in wind installations and has a leg up in solar manufacturing; but in a country building a new coal plant every other week, any environmental and health impact of developing renewable energy is being negated by such a heavy reliance on dirty energy. Or, as the Earth Policy Institute so bluntly puts it: “China is sacrificing the health of its people, ultimately risking future prosperity” (and that’s on top of the devastation that awaits China from unrestricted emissions of greenhouse gases).

While official rhetoric recognizes the importance of preserving the environment and the health of its people, the Chinese government still has a long way to go in bolstering transparency and enforcement of even the existing environmental regulations, not to mention strengthening protection. If it does not do so, the country’s toxic burden threatens to stall or even reverse the dramatic health gains of the last 60 years, which raised average life expectancy from 45 to 74 years and slashed infant mortality from 122 deaths per 1,000 births down to 20. Economic gains could be lost as productivity wanes and massive health bills come due. Ultimately, a sick country can prosper only so long.

The coal industry likes to point out how this dirty resource “pulls people out of poverty.” But as this latest data from China shows (and as we’ve pointed out in previous posts), the consequences of burning coal eventually catch up.

“” Stephen Lacey

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