China could prevent three million premature deaths each year by enforcing tighter air quality standards and reducing particulate matter to the level recommended by the WHO, scientists said on Wednesday. Researchers led by Maigeng Zhou at the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in Beijing predicted the short term effects of particulate air pollution on mortality in 38 of China’s largest cities from January 1, 2010 to June 29, 2013.
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Over the study period, the daily mean concentrations of PM10 (particle diameter less than 10 micrometre) across all locations was 92.9 microgrammes per cubic metres.
The most polluted city in the sample was Urumqi in Xinjiang Province, with an average daily mean PM10 concentration of 136.0 microgrammes per cubic metres.
The least polluted city was Qinhuangdao in Hebei Province, with an average daily mean PM10 concentration of 66.9 microgrammes per cubic metres.
Over 350,000 deaths were recorded during the period of the study published in the BMJ.
Although PM10 mortality associations varied substantially across different cities, the researchers found a link between daily mortality and exposure to PM10 in 87 per cent of sampled cities.
On closer examination, they found that air pollution appeared to have a much greater impact on deaths due to cardiorespiratory diseases, such as asthma and chronic lung disease (COPD), than it did on deaths due to other causes.
They also found that the potential impact of PM10 pollution was greater for females than males; and that air pollution may primarily affect people aged 60 years or more.
This study involved modelled data which can make predictions about cause and effect, but cannot be used to draw firm causal conclusions.
Researchers suggest that bringing China’s PM10 level to the World Health Organisation (WHO) standard of 20 microgrammes per cubic metres would save three million premature deaths each year.
They add that this number is likely to be a lower estimate of the total number of deaths related to air pollution because the air pollution effect can be larger in rural areas and PM10 is more detrimental to human health in the long run.
“Our findings suggest that adopting and enforcing tighter air quality standards in China will bring about tremendous public health benefits,” researchers said.