Effects of Air Pollution in Northeastern China

Air pollution has become one of the most hazardous environmental problems in northeastern China. Massive coal combustion and the presence of heavy vehicles in huge cities coupled with inadequate emission controls have left the people exposed to doomsday air level pollution. An understanding of the connection of air pollution and related environmental impacts, technologies and energy consumption is necessary for evaluating the results and the effects of uncontrolled air pollution. The objective is to establish the link between the growing economy and the visible air pollution conditions witnessed in northeastern China’s cities such as Beijing and Tianjin. Appreciation of the factors contributing to current pollution levels aids in the assessment of the short-term and long-term effects of free particles emissions to the environment and the health of people. The comprehensive assessment of air pollution effects provides a significant input to world environmental policy-making process tasked with enacting regulatory actions and policies to maximize environmental conservation and control climate change. The air pollution effects should be of interest not only to the government and people of China but also to developed countries since air pollution is detrimental to health. The effects’ assessment follows the highest recorded massive pollution shrouds in Northeast China’s cities characterized with fifty times World Health Organization (WHO) recommended limits of the most dangerous particles. The essay aims to analyze the air pollution effects in northeastern China as one of the main sources of health complication, economic problems, and environmental degradation.

The high economic growth experienced in China has had both positive and negative impacts on the environment. For the last twenty to thirty years, there is no doubt that advancement in Chinese economy has promoted positive impacts to the environment. Technology improvements always accompany economic growth hence better utilization of the resources and enhanced energy efficiency (Haerens, 2011). In consequence of a changing industrial structure, cleaner and more efficient energy technologies have been implemented as pollution control efforts and reduction of the ambient concentration of sulfur dioxide (SO2) and air particle matter (Topal, & Chung, 2014). Enacted environmental control policies have had some positive impacts on the efforts made to level off or even reduce the air pollution loads plaguing particular industrial sectors and cities. At the same time, a growing economy has created new environmental challenges being experienced nowadays. The total energy use in China has increased by 70% between 2000 and 2005 (Al-Zoughool, 2015, p. 3). Coal combustion rose by 75 percent considering the fact that it is the country’s primary source of energy (Al-Zoughool, 2015, p. 3). The energy intensive economy has seen China become the leader regarding SO2 and soot emission in the world. The pollution in China has not affected the air alone. Moreover, water from seven main rivers has been classified as unsafe for human consumption. The most populous northern parts of China bear a double burden from air and water pollution.

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The rising levels of air pollution, coal burning, and vehicle emissions in the primary centers have made the government prioritize air quality after a long time of dismissing and downplaying the complexity of the situation. Images taken from Shangai, Harbin, Beijing, and other northeastern China’s cities illustrate the way air pollution is perceived in the country. Recently, buildings, people, and streets were rendered invisible by a brownish, soupy concoction. Barely visible individuals in the images had facemasks. Last year, Beijing choked on thick brown smog after skyrocketing of air pollution (Fritz, 2015). The conditions were twenty times worse than the WHO recommended safe levels (Topal, & Chung, 2014). The situation prompted the Chinese government to issue the highest air quality alert levels. The Beijing poor air quality nose-dived due to increased coal burning to heat homes during winter. Shenyang recorded a similar extremely hazardous air pollution levels. The region experienced the PM2.5 concentration, fine air particles dangerous to human health, recorded 1,155 micrograms per cubic meter which are far above the WHO safe standard levels of 25 micrograms for every cubic meter of air (Fritz, 2015). The city environmental monitoring bureau reported that the concentration reached 1,400 micrograms per cubic meter in individual recording stations (Tao, 2014). The images and figures need to persuade governments and organizations tasked with conserving the environment to implement the most proactive measure in dealing with air pollutions and climate change before similar situation replicates around the globe.

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Factors Influencing the Change in Exposure

Urbanization has contributed significantly to the increasing exposure levels in various cities. It refers to the process of not only migration but also industrialization, social aggregation, and modernization. Rapid urbanization, especially in the coastal areas, is accompanied by the strong economic growth. Approximately 0.5 billion people live in the cities (Rohde, & Muller, 2015). China State Statistics Bureau projects a gradual growth in the urban population in years to come. As a result of growing human concentration and the concentration of industries in the cities, a bigger portion of the Chinese population is exposed to the hazardous air quality. A larger population means a greater need for energy in the form of coal, which in turn contributes to a sustained high level of environmental pollution. In the attempt to minimize exposure enhanced through urbanization, the government has implemented measures geared towards discouraging urban migration through the creation of job opportunities in the rural areas.

Increased energy consumption is the other factor contributing to the changing level of exposure. Coal was and remains to be the primary source of energy in China. Although the demand for a more environmentally friendly source of energy has increased, the impact of coal consumption remains an important factor in the assessment of the ambient air pollution. Mobile energy consumer relies on other fossil forms of energy while the nuclear power and hydroelectric energy are gaining popularity. The extent of energy consumption growth remains small when compared to the rate of growth of the economy (Al-Zoughool, 2015). This is probably due to the adoption of more energy-efficient technologies and the modernization of the energy structure. In spite of the efforts to reduce the use of energy sources containing air pollutants and byproducts, the majority of people, especially the poor, use the excessive burning of coal during winter to keep warm. Better affordable forms of energy need to be availed to citizens in order to counter the growing exposure as a result of increased energy consumption. Authorities must consider making it a bit difficult for the citizen to access hazardous energy source to cut consumption.

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Moreover, the increase in the number of vehicles has impacted on the changing levels of exposure. In 2011, Beijing alone had a total of 5 million registered cars on its roads (The Lancet, 2014). In addition to cars, the city plan and construction placed the private places too close to the industrial areas. The reason is that the planners focus mainly on reducing the distance that the workers cover when reaching their workplaces. With the rising need of sustainable development, some of the cities have been reconstructed with industries being relocated or converted to non-polluting entities. Shanghai offers an ideal example of a town renovated with over 750 industries being transferred or changed to environmentally friendly enterprises (Friedrich, 2011). An environmental scientific report released by the Berkeley Earth group indicated that air pollutants are responsible for around seventeen percent of all the deaths in China (The Lancet, 2014). Muller, the group’s scientific director, compared breathing the air in Beijing when at its worst pollution levels to smoking one and a half cigarette every hour. If environmental preservation efforts are sustained and increased in degree, the level of exposure to the hazardous air quality will diminish. The diminished exposure levels will reflect in reduced number of deaths associated with air pollution.

Impacts of Air Pollution on Health, Economy and Environment

After appreciating the changing exposure levels of the air pollution in China, this section focuses on the effects and outcomes of the dangerous air quality condition. The dominant air pollutants recorded in northeastern China’s cities include SO2 and NOx suspended particles. Some of the health outcomes associated with such pollutants comprise changes in mortality, respiratory diseases, morbidity, cerebrovascular disease and cardiovascular disease, as well as increased frequent visits to outpatients and hospital emergency facilities (Stern, 2013). According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the level reached in most of northeastern China’s cities would trigger a health emergency warning (Fritz, 2015). Particle pollutants of 2.5 micrometers or less are incredibly hazardous to human health, especially when at such high levels. EPA indicates that air particles of less than ten micrometers can embed deep in the respiratory system or even get into the blood stream through the lungs making them more dangerous (Fritz, 2015). Although children are more easily affected by air pollution, the extreme conditions recorded are likely to affect the entire population. The small particles suspended in the air have a severe impact on the health of both children and adults.

Air pollution in the cities of northeastern China is undeniably a sustainable issue at deadly levels concerning the citizens’ physical health. Numerous studies in these cities have reported uncontestable links between increasing respiratory symptoms, premature mortality, and the increasing exposure to polluted air (Stern, 2013). Horrendous heath impact recorded since the advent of economic reforms has resulted in more than one hundred thousand premature deaths (Wuebbles, & Sanyal, 2015). 470,000 premature deaths annually recorded in China are the result of polluted air exposure (Wuebbles, & Sanyal, 2015). Scientists have indicated the link between skyrocketing outdoor suspended particle concentration and the higher respiratory disease risk and morbidity prevalence. The air pollution has resulted in nascence of “cancer villages” which are geographic areas within the cities of people with beyond the reasonable number of cancer cases. The death rate due to lung cancer, which remains to be China’s most lethal cancer, increased by 465 percent during the last thirty years (Topal, & Chung, 2014). Other health issues related to the air pollutants include aggravated asthma, reduction in lung function, weakening of the immune system, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and irregular heartbeat. Two major scientific reports released recently illustrate the havoc that the polluted air has created on the Chinese people. According to a report compiled by MIT team, individuals in the northern China live on average five and a half fewer years compared to those in southern China. Global Burden of Disease Study conducted in 2010 indicated that 1.2 million premature deaths were recorded in that year alone (Topal, & Chung, 2014). All the study reports reveal the substantial health damage caused by air pollution to those who breathe it. If better health condition is an achievable dream, good air quality must also be within reach.

This sustainability issue not only harms the Chinese people’s health but also creates significant economic cost. Costs spent to combat air pollution are immense with various studies arriving at different percentages in comparison of the country’s GDP. The different data depend on the metrics adopted by individual researchers and whether they take into consideration the long-term and short-term health outcomes (The Lancet, 2014). In addition, some researchers factor in non-health impacts in the estimation of the economic cost of the pollution. According to the reports of MIT and Global Burden of Disease, air pollution in northeastern China raises mortality and morbidity rates (Topal, & Chung, 2014). The two conditions translate to higher medical cost and reduced productivity. Polluted air causes resource depletion. Acidic rains deplete the Chinese arable land, contaminate the water, affect the fish, and lower the crop productivity. Airborne pollutants corrode buildings and kill plants and forests. Apart from the direct economic effects, dirty air possesses some indirect ones that must be considered. For instance, Shanghai Free Trade Zone targets to attract business people from around the globe to the city. China and more specifically the Shanghai environmental reputation will deter investors from preferring the city over other possible investment destinations. Tourism has also been affected with the country foreign visitors reducing by 5% in 2013 and by 10.3 percent in Beijing city (Topal, & Chung, 2014). The media-drenched January 2013 apocalypse may have played a fundamental role in deterring visitors. The Chinese need to be concerned of economic implications related to air pollution and the need to preserve the national historical monuments being eroded by acid rains.

In addition to human health and economic effects, air pollution has caused several environmental effects. Precipitation containing high levels of harmful amount of sulfuric and nitric acids is common in northeastern cities of China. These acids form due to excessive combustion of fossil fuels. The precipitations fall to the ground in the shape of rain, fog, snow, and sometimes in dry gas particles precipitates (Stern, 2013). Such precipitation results in soil and water acidification, affecting plants, fish, and wildlife. Due to the increased eutrophication and water body condition caused by excessive amount of nutrients such as nitrogen in the water, blooms of algae are stimulated. Eutrophication kills fish and causes a rapid reduction in plants and animal diversity (Stern, 2013). Although eutrophication can be considered a natural process of aging estuaries and lakes, the humans, especially in China, accelerate the process by increase of the rate at which nutrients find their way into the aquatic ecosystems. Nitrogen entering the aquatic ecosystems has increased rapidly due to rising air emissions of nitrogen oxides from vehicles, power plants, and home coal combustion.

Haze is a condition that occurs when the sun rays encounter suspended tiny pollutants particles in the air. Haze obscures the visibility clarity regarding color, texture and form. Images taken in the main northern cities illustrate haze considering that the face masked individuals and building are barely visible. Hazes causing fine particles are in most cases released directly from automobiles, power plants, industrial facilities, and construction sites (Haerens, 2011). Others, in particular the ones experienced in Beijing, are formed when gasses such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides emitted to the air combine to create a thick smog as they are carried downwind. Such toxic pollutants create health problems in animals after an extended period of exposure. Research informs that toxic air contributes to reproduction failure, birth defects, and numerous disease affecting animals (Haerens, 2011). Persistent air pollutants affecting the aquatic ecosystem accumulate in sediments and get biomagnified in animal tissues, especially those at the top of the food chain, creating a higher toxic concentration in the body than in water or air.

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As one of the worst air polluted areas in the world, this region in China hugely contributes to the depletion of the ozone layer. The gas layer that occurs at the stratosphere and the Earth ground level offers protection against harmful ultraviolet sun rays. Fluorocarbons released into the atmosphere forms the man-made ozone depleting substances. Thinning of the ozone layer will lead to increased ultraviolet rays reaching the earth evidenced in increased skin cancer cases, impaired immune system, and cataracts (Rohde, & Muller, 2015). Ground level ozone results in reduced commercial forest and crops yields, reduction in survivability and growth of tree seedlings, and increases plants susceptibility to environmental stresses such as disease, harsh weather, and pests. Such effects on the earth atmosphere tip off the delicate natural gasses balance which traps some sun heat close to the earth surface. The natural gasses balance helps in maintaining a stable temperature range on the earth (Rohde, & Muller, 2015). The excessive production of some of the natural gasses such as methane and carbon dioxide disturb the natural balance of the greenhouse like gasses. Consequently, more sun’s heat is getting trapped by the atmosphere causing an average rise in temperatures or what many have come to refer to as global warming. Global warming has a substantial effect on human health, water resources, agriculture, forests, and coastal areas. The ripple effects include the much feared climate change.

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As aforementioned, the health and economic costs of the analyzed environmental crisis are not limited to the northeastern cities of China but extend far beyond the country’s boundaries. Natural air movements have transported pollutants from China’s atmosphere to neighboring countries such as Korea and Japan. Nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxides from China’s coal-fueled power plants and residential areas have been shown to fall as acid rains in Tokyo and Seoul (Al-Zoughool, 2015). China’s environmental air pollutants have traveled farther across the Pacific and are being experienced in Canada and the United States. A study associates the majority of particulate pollution recorded in Los Angeles to have originated from China. At the moment when China fails to embrace sustainable development, all species on earth are affected.

Reaction to Poor Air Quality in China Cities

In the middle of the crisis, a positive thing has emerged since recognition of the environmental problem has gained momentum among the Chinese people and the world. Currently, over forty-seven percent of the Chinese population consider air pollution as an important issue after witnessing day turn into night, and the normal natural air turns into a smoking lounge (Topal, & Chung, 2014). Air pollution trends and obtains significant air time in social media. Citizens are calling for the Beijing government to take responsibility while other are scared to the point of considering relocating to other countries. People have taken to the social media seeking to know the exact level of risks and the effectiveness of the facemask in protecting their health. Dramatic growth in the number of NGOs has been witnessed in the past three years. Protests aimed at promoting environmental issues awareness are frequent. Air pollution has replacing the land dispute as the primary cause of social unrest. People take to the streets to protest construction of more coal-fueled power plants, wastes incinerators, and oil refineries.

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