Pollution in China

Beijing air on a day after rain (left) and a sunny but Smoggy day (right)

Pollution is causing serious problems in China.


Types of pollution

Electronic waste

Electronic waste is being deported to China and is causing war, water and land based pollution. China is believed to be the dominant recipient of the world's electronic waste, with a roughly estimated one billion tons of electronic waste being shipped there per year, mostly from the United States, Canada and Japan. 90% of US e-waste is exported to China and Nigeria.

E-waste recycling operations are toxic and are usually conducted with bare skin; 88% of workers suffer from neurological or digestive abnormalities or skin diseases and many develop breathing problems. Besides skin contact with toxic materials, workers burn plastics coatings to separate them from metals, resulting in inhalation of poisonous gases. Workers also use highly corrosive and dangerous acid baths along the riverbanks to extract gold from the microchips. Residents of the areas surrounding the Guiyu e-waste village are exposed to the toxic ash and soil that is dumped by the rivers. Pools of toxins leach into the groundwater of Guiiyu, making it so polluted that the water is absolutely undrinkable (not even after having been boiled) and water must be trucked in from elsewhere. Lead levels in the river sediment are double the safety levels. Lead in the blood of Guiyu's children is 88% higher than in the average child. Guiyu is world's second most polluted spot, first being Lake Karachay. Visitors to the city claim to still experience headaches and strange metallic tastes in the mouth due to the air pollution.

A recent study of the area evaluated the extent of heavy metal contamination from the site. Using dust samples, scientists analysed mean heavy metal concentrations in a Guiyu workshop and found that Lead and Copper were 371 and 115 times higher, respectively, than areas located 30 kilometers away. The same study revealed that sediment from the nearby Lianjiang River was found to be contaminated by polychlorinated byphenyls at a level three times greater than the guideline amount. Studies are underway to assess the extent to which chemicals like these maginify through bioaccumulation.

Industrial pollution

China Carbon Dioxine emission per million cubic meters from 1980 to 2009.
Air pollution caused by industrial plants

Industrial pollution has its most severe impact on the poor and in China, pollution incidents have been so serious as to be the cause of rioting in recent years.

1997 World Bank report

In 1997, the World Bank issued a report targeting China's policy towards industrial pollution. The main summary points were:[1]

  1. There were "hundreds of thousands of premature deaths and incidents of serious respiratory illness caused by exposure to industrial air pollution"
  2. "Seriously contaminated by industrial discharges, many of China's waterways are largely unfit for direct human use", but the World Bank report stressed that this problem can be avoided with moderate cost.
  3. Continued economic development would make the pollution worse.
  4. If the Chinese government refused to impose more powerful and more strict anti-pollution laws, "most of China's waterways will remain heavily polluted, and many thousands of people will die or suffer serious respiratory damage."
  5. "The stakes are even higher for air pollution because regulatory enforcement has weakened in many areas in the past five years." China's National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA) had recommended a tenfold increase in the air pollution levy, but the World Bank report recommended a fiftyfold increase in the levy. "Reducing emissions from large private plants is so cheap that only significant abatement makes sense – at least 70 percent abatement of sulfur dioxide particulates and even greater abatement of particulates in large urban industrial facilities."

International media report

Joseph Kahn and Jim Yardley of the New York Times filed a report on August 26, 2007 about China's pollution problem: "Environmental degradation is now so severe, with such stark domestic and international repercussions, that pollution poses not only a major long-term burden on the Chinese public but also an acute political challenge to the ruling Communist Party." Main points from the report included:[2]

  1. According to the Chinese Ministry of Health, industrial pollution has made cancer China’s leading cause of death.
  2. Every year, ambient air pollution alone killed hundreds of thousands of citizens.
  3. 500 million people in China are without safe and clean drinking water.
  4. Only 1% of the country’s 560 million city dwellers breathe air considered safe by the European Union, because all the China's major cities are constantly covered in a "toxic gray shroud". Before and during the 2008 Summer Olympics, Beijing was "frantically searching for a magic formula, a meteorological deus ex machina, to clear its skies for the 2008 Olympics."
  5. Lead poisoning or other types of local pollution continue to kill many Chinese children.
  6. A large section of the ocean is without marine life because of massive algal boom caused by the high nutrients in the water.
  7. The pollution has spread internationally: sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides fall as acid rain on Seoul, South Korea, and Tokyo; and according to the Journal of Geophysical Research, the pollution even reaches Los Angeles in the USA.
  8. The Chinese Academy of Environmental Planning in 2003 had an internal and unpublished report which estimated that 300,000 people die each year from ambient air pollution, mostly of heart disease and lung cancer.
  9. Chinese environmental experts in 2005 issued another report, estimating that annual premature deaths attributable to outdoor air pollution were likely to reach 380,000 in 2010 and 550,000 in 2020.
  10. A 2007 World Bank report concluded "...outdoor air pollution was already causing 350,000 to 400,000 premature deaths a year. Indoor pollution contributed to the deaths of an additional 300,000 people, while 60,000 died from diarrhea, bladder and stomach cancer and other diseases that can be caused by water-borne pollution." World Bank officials said "China’s environmental agency insisted that the health statistics be removed from the published version of the report, citing the possible impact on 'social stability'".[3]

The report Mother river claimed that severe pollution has made one-third of China's Yellow River unusable even for agricultural or industrial use, because of factory discharges and sewage from fast-expanding cities.[4]

The survey, based on data taken last year, covered more than 8,384 miles of the river, one of the longest waterways in the world, and its tributaries.

The Yellow River Conservancy Committee, in 2007 surveyed more than 8,384 miles of the river, said 33.8% of the river system registered worse than level five. According to criteria used by the UN Environment Program, level five is unfit for drinking, aquaculture, industrial use and even agriculture.

The report said waste and sewage discharged into the system last year totaled 4.29bn tonnes. Industry and manufacturing made up 70% of the discharge into the river, with households accounting for 23% and just over 6% coming from other sources.

Incense smoke from a Tibetan Buddhist temple in Chengdu (2009). Incense and joss sticks are also notorious for causing air pollution. As a result, the CPC has implemented restrictions on incense-burning

Water pollution

Approximately 300 million nationwide have no access to clean water. Furthermore, over 700 million Chinese drink fetid water below World Health Organization standards. Almost 90% of underground water in cities are affected by pollution and 80% of China’s rivers fail to meet standards for fishing.[5] Almost all of the nation's rivers are considered polluted to some degree, and half of the population lacks access to clean drinking water. Ninety percent of urban water bodies are severely polluted.[6] Water scarcity also is an issue; for example, severe water scarcity in Northern China is a serious threat to sustained economic growth and has forced the government to begin implementing a large-scale diversion of water from the Yangtze River to northern cities, including Beijing and Tianjin.

For the 2008 Summer Olympics, China diverted water from Hebei and Shanxi provinces, areas already beset by drought and dramatic water shortages to Beijing.[7] In July 2008, the head of the Beijing Water Authority Bi Xiaogang denied that the Olympics will increase water consumption by a large amount. However, previously he and other local officials said that Beijing would divert up to 400 million cubic meters of water from Hebei for the Games with water-diversion facilities and pipes been built to pump water from four reservoirs in Hebei.[8] Around Baoding city alone, a mostly rural area, 31,000 residents have lost land and their homes because of a water transfer project; many more have been displaced throughout Hebei.[9][10] According to an August 24, 2008 report by the UK’s Times, much of the infrastructure intended for the water diversion scheme was left half-constructed or un-used when Beijing officials realized that water demand estimates had been far too high. The number of tourists attending the Beijing games was lower than expected, and many migrant workers, ethnic minorities, and political dissidents had left the city because of intimidation or official requests. Nevertheless, the Hebei area had already been sucked dry to fill a number of large reservoirs, leading to drought and agricultural losses.[11]

An explosion at a petrochemical plant in Jilin City on November 13, 2005 caused a large discharge of nitrobenzene into the Songhua River. Levels of the carcinogen were so high that the entire water supply to Harbin city (pop 3.8M) was cut off for five days between November 21, 2005 and November 26, 2005, though it was only on November 23 that officials admitted that a severe pollution incident was the reason for the cutoff.[12]

The responsibility for dealing with water is split between several agencies within the government. Water pollution is the responsibility of the environmental authorities, but the water supply itself is managed by the Ministry of Water Resources. Sewage treatment is managed by the Ministry of Construction, but groundwater management falls within the realm of the Ministry of Land and Resources. China grades its water quality in six levels, from Grade I to Grade VI, with Grade VI being the most highest polluted.[13]

Air pollution

Thick haze blown off the Eastern coast of China, over Bo Hai Bay and Yellow Sea. The haze likely results from urban and industrial pollution.

According to the People's Republic of China's own evaluation, two-thirds of the 338 cities for which air-quality data are available are considered 'moderately' or 'severely' polluted. Respiratory, Cancer and heart diseases related to air pollution are the leading cause of death in China. Acid rain falls on 30% of the country. China's environmental laws are among the strictest in the world[dubious ][citation needed], but enforcing these laws has been difficult in China. The World Health Organization has found that about 750,000 people die prematurely each year from respiratory problems in China.

According to the World Bank, the cities with the highest levels of particulate matter in the PRC in 2004 were Tianjin, Chongqing, and Shenyang. These were among the ten most polluted cities in the world by this measure.[14]

During the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, air pollution was more closely monitored and (especially in Beijing itself) more and stricter measures were being taken. The monitoring of the air quality was done by the European Space Agency and the Ministry of Science and Technology, in their "Dragon Programme". In this programme, data from the SCIAMACHY-spectrometer aboard the ENVISAT was combined with the AURORA-airqualitymodel.[15]

The US embassy in Beijing regularly posts automated air quality measurements at @beijingair on Twitter. On 18 November 2010, the feed described the PM2.5 measurement as "crazy bad" after registering a reading in excess of 500 for the first time. This description was later changed to "beyond index",[16] a level which recurred in February 2011.[17]

Pollution ratings in China

See also

  • Environmental issues in China


  1. ^ Dasgupta, Susmita; Hua Wang; Wheeler, David; (1997-11-30). "Surviving success: policy reform and the future of industrial pollution in China, Volume 1". The World Bank. http://econ.worldbank.org/external/default/main?pagePK=64165259&piPK=64165421&theSitePK=469372&menuPK=64216926&entityID=000009265_3971229181112. Retrieved 2009-03-14. 
  2. ^ JOSEPH KAHN and JIM YARDLEY (August 26, 2007). "http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/26/world/asia/26china.html?pagewanted=all". The New York Times. 
  3. ^ JOSEPH KAHN and JIM YARDLEY (August 26, 2007). "http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/26/world/asia/26china.html?pagewanted=all As China Roars, Pollution Reaches Deadly Extremes". The New York Times. 
  4. ^ Tania Branigan (25 November 2008). "One-third of China's Yellow river 'unfit for drinking or agriculture' Factory waste and sewage from growing cities has severely polluted major waterway, according to Chinese research". London: guardian.co.uk. http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/nov/25/water-china. Retrieved 2009-03-14. 
  5. ^ Miao Hong (2006). "China battles pollution amid full-speed economic growth." Chinese Embassy (UK), September 29, 2006.
  6. ^ Water Environment Partnership in Asia. "State of Water Environmental Issues: China." Accessed 2009-04-06.
  7. ^ Chris Buckley (2008). "Beijing Olympic water scheme drains parched farmers." Reuters, January 22, 2008.
  8. ^ Shi Jiangtao (2008). "Official Denies Plan to Divert Water from Parched Provinces." South China Morning Post, July 26, 2008.
  9. ^ Xinhua (2008)."China refills lake." June 20, 2008
  10. ^ Xinhua (2007). "Hebei Reservoirs." November 26, 2007.
  11. ^ Michael Sheridan (2008). "Millions forfeit water to Olympic Games." Times, August 24, 2008.
  12. ^ "China city water supply to resume". BBC. 2005-11-27. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/4475096.stm. 
  13. ^ Ma, Xiangcong (2007-02-21). "China's environmental governance". chinadialogue. http://www.chinadialogue.net/article/show/single/en/789-China-s-environmental-governance. 
  14. ^ World Bank (2007). Washington, DC. "2007 World Development Indicators: Air Pollution." Table 3.13.
  15. ^ Science connection 22 (july 2008)
  16. ^ http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20101123/04445111985/us-embassy-accidentally-calls-beijings-pollution-crazy-bad.shtml
  17. ^ "Beijing's polluted air defies standard measure"
  18. ^ a b c Qin, Jize (2004-07-15). "Most polluted cities in China blacklisted". China Daily. http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/english/doc/2004-07/15/content_348397.htm. 
  19. ^ TIME, The World's Most Polluted Cities

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