What The U.S. Can Learn From China’s Off-The-Charts Air Pollution

Beijing has tolerated abysmal air pollution for years as the price for China’s rapid economic development. But on January 12, the city’s air pollution reached unprecedented levels, even beyond the upper limits of the Air Quality Index, which reports daily air quality around the world.

The worst pollution on record is taking a serious toll on Beijing’s residents. According to one hospital official, the number of emergency room patients with heart attacks roughly doubled over the weekend. Hospitals are struggling to handle an influx of people suffering from respiratory and cardiac trouble.

As dictated by emergency procedure, the city banned government vehicles from the roads, and asked industrial companies to reduce their emissions. Hyundai also suspended production for a day. While these measures may help ease the immediate problem, this public health crisis has been a long time coming. In the past year, air pollution was responsible for 8,572 premature deaths in China. Studies show that air pollution is now more deadly than high cholesterol.

The main cause of the out-of-control pollution is burning coal, exacerbated by weather conditions trapping the smog. As Beijing-based engineer Vance Wagner notes, the bulk of the pollution originates in factories and power plants spawned by the breakneck speed of China’s unchecked industrialization.


Indeed, as air quality worsens, the country’s economic growth has also exploded. China’s coal production has tripled in the past decade to keep pace with skyrocketing energy consumption rates. The government has tried to dismiss the environmental consequences of modernization, even whitewashing this most recent episode as “heavy fog.”

China’s pollution disaster should serve as a warning for American lawmakers who claim environmental regulation hurts business. While US pollution levels are nowhere near China’s, cities like Los Angeles and Birmingham struggle to meet basic federal air quality standards.

Despite Republican opposition, the Environmental Protection Agency recently issued more stringent soot standards projected to save roughly 15,000 lives a year. Still, Congressional Republicans have not given up on their long campaign to defund the EPA. As part of the impending “fiscal cliff,” the agency’s clean air program stands to lose more than $100 million in funding.