Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Air Pollution: Do We Have A Panacea?

by Yudong Qian

In Dr. Zhang’s lecture, he introduced the history of global air pollution in developed countries and offered solutions for the air pollution burden developing countries are suffering right now. The insight he has put into this global burden is inspiring and evokes some of my own experiences and thoughts.

When you talk about air pollution, what do you think of first? Will you come up with the picture of cities with endless obscure smog and people wearing masks? Or will you think of the related diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), acute lower respiratory illness (ALRI), cerebrovascular disease (CEV), ischaemic heart disease (IHD) and lung cancer (Lelieveld, 2015)? Not surprisingly, these phenomenon and diseases are really happening in the world everyday. One week ago, the number of PM2.5 in Shenyang - a city in Northern China - broke the threshold and reached to 1400mg/m3, which resulted in the overload of patients in respiratory departments of the city hospitals. This February, a documentary called “Under the Dome” about the air pollution in China has drawn global attention. The documentary was filmed and self-financed by Chai Jing, a former China Central Television journalist, who said she felt dangerous for her kids to live in a city like Beijing with 175 days/year under pollutant air.

While China is suffering the unprecedented outdoor air pollution, people in Africa are under the exposure of indoor air pollutants. In Sudan, low respiratory infection is the top one risk factor for disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) (Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation,2010). Biomass fuel remains the primary energy supply and the indoor smoke caused by biomass burning is responsible for 2.7 percent of the global burden of disease (WHO, 2010). The distinction between China and Sudan reflects the relationship between economic development and air pollution: in middle-income economies, outdoor air pollution is the prevailing pattern while in low-income economies, indoor air pollution is the prevailing pattern.

Air pollution is no longer a new global issue, but why are the people in developing countries still suffering from it? Dr. Zhang explained this by using some examples of developed countries. The accidents happened in London and Los Angeles were the consequences of rapid industrialization. He then provided a formula for the solution in developing countries: Legislation + Technology + Enforcement == Clean Air. From this we can see the main factors preventing developing countries from getting access to clean air. To fix the air pollution problems, the first step is to enact environment protection law and enhance public dissemination. Next, for different countries there should be different strategies to tackle air pollution. From my experience, the biggest problem in China is the lack of enforcement to implement environmental protective regulations and green technologies. However, in Africa like Sudan, the imperative approach should be introducing environmental friendly fuels for the households.

1. Lelieveld, J., Evans, J. S., Fnais, M., Giannadaki, D., & Pozzer, A. (2015). The contribution of outdoor air pollution sources to premature mortality on a global scale. Nature, 525(7569), 367-371.
2. Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (2010). GDB: Sudan. Retrieved from
3. World Health Organization (2010). Sudan: WHO statistical profile. Retrieved from


  1. Thanks for the informative post.
    Countries in Latin America and Africa have high rates of exposure to poor air-- not from the pollution in the outside air but from pollutions in the home. I found this post interesting because you didnt just look at a whole country and assume that because they have low air emissions the people are healthier in these parts of the world.
    However, women and children have high rates of co2 exposure because of poor ventilation in home. People use cook stoves in the house that emit c02 yet there are no means of eliminating the fumes.
    I once volunteered with an NGO that found that it was hard to simply tell women to stop cooking in their houses. They needed to inform women about the dangers of the fumes for them and their family- this required extensive community meetings with health workers and doctors from these areas.
    However I think that this is an easier task to tackle than that of carbon dioxide emissions of fortune 500 companies because there is less of an obvious impact to the economy.
    This systems seems like it would decrease the rates of lower respiratory infection in places like South Sudan.
    It is interesting to look at burden from a different lens.

    Its still important however to have the conversation about how much power plants are allowed to dump into the air.
    Because these chemicals reach a larger group of people. The EPA releases new regulations in an attempt to control what power plants can emit, however I have doubts how affective this is.
    Does anyone per chance know how cap and trade is regulated?

  2. Hi Yudong,
    Thank you for the interesting post. I appreciate you providing information about Sudan, which suffers more of indoor air pollution.

    I think you made a good point that China lacks the enforcement to implement the legislation in regulating air pollution. This was also the most striking take away information from Dr. Zhang's lecture. I was supper surprised to hear that China had a air pollution law from 1981, which apparently has been poorly implemented. As for my personal experience, there are many many middle and small cities in China that suffer just the same level of bad air quality as the major cities, but have no way to drawn any attention from the government, not even mention the global effort. My hometown is a very small city in Shandong, and since my high school, I started to complain about the terrible air quality. That was far before the fancy PM 2.5 was brought to the table. These years i rarely went back home but I heard from my parents that there is no signs of any improvement, nor any effort by any authority to improve. A few days ago, i saw pictures on Wechat posted my my friends of what it was like that day in my city, and all i could say was "OMG". It was just dust and grey, and I could not see anything through this veil of grey air.

    Also, i think China is also endangered by indoor pollution, given the high rate of smoking prevalence in China. Related issues such as second-hand smoking, are also threatening people's, especially next generation's health.

    Air pollution is definitely an important problem in today's world and especially countries like China. The outcome would be significant as air pollution is a big risk factor of pneumonia, lung cancer, and COPD. Future global effort is consistently needed to alleviate this situation.

  3. Great post and comments.

    I recently attended a discussion in the policy school that relates to this topic, which centered on energy 'leapfrogging'. The idea behind leapfrogging is that low- and middle-income countries today are developing in a world in which there exist energy technologies that are massively more efficient and less pollutant than those that existed when current "developed" countries were undergoing huge shifts toward industrialization. The question posed is whether developing countries can use these technologies to 'leapfrog' into low-carbon energy markets, skipping the high-carbon output periods that the US and others went through (and as noted above, China is currently experiencing). It seems like there's some debate about the feasibility of this idea - the biggest hangup appears to be that although better energy technologies exist today, daily living also relies on higher energy consumption than it did in the past. The idea of leapfrogging might not be valid if the energy demands produced by an ever-advancing world grow just as fast as our ability to improve energy technologies.

  4. Thanks Yudong, for an informative post pointing out that indoor and outdoor air pollution are major global health risks. In 2007, the World Bank, working with China’s national environmental agency, found that “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.” Despite the mortality rates caused by indoor and outdoor air pollution being equal, international media tend to focus on effects of smog in cities and not on the impact of indoor air pollution in undeveloped areas. Those living in rural regions are likely poor, disconnected, and less powerful compared to those in urban areas, thus less attention is focused on the environmental risks that impact the rural areas. In contrast, people in cities have more access to information regarding the health impacts of smog and the platform to make their concerns heard by the media and policymakers. Economic disparities in rural and urban regions dictate the type of environmental hazards one experiences, the ways to counteract these risks, and the ability to call others to attention regarding these problems. To be effective advocates for the health of the disadvantaged, we must recognize the compounded burden of risks faced by the rural poor, and work to draw attention to these issues that are often disregarded by the media and by policymakers.

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  6. Nice post! This week the COP21 World Climate Summit is being hold in Paris. Even though the air pollution and climate change is two different topic, but climate change covers air pollution and other themes. Recent year, lots of people started to pay attention to air pollution in Beijing. I lived in Beijing for six years, and travelled to other part of China and many countries. I myself did not find Beijing's air the worst. Actually, if you look at the data (http://aqicn.org/map/world/), Beijing's air pollution is not even top-10. Lots of cities in the world are suffering from heavy air pollution, such as Lagos in Nigeria, Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia , Khonkaen in Thailand, New Dehli in India, and Regina in Canada, etc. But the attention on Beijing's air pollution makes Beijing implemented its most strict transportation policy, private car can only allowed to drive on road half of the week. Transportation is believed to be the largest contributor of air pollution, considering Beijing is not a industrial zone.
    By Hanati Hailati