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Mortality costs of Chinese air pollution

I discussed my experiences with air pollution in some southern Chinese cities.  It is far worse in the northern China which is home to some of the world’s most polluted cities.  This paper by Yuyu Chen, Avraham Ebenstein, Michael Greenstone and Li Hongbin  on China’s Huai River Policy has astounding implications.  The while paper can be access online as MIT Department of Economics Working Paper No. 13-15. The study draws inferences about the extremely high air pollution levels in China by exploiting a good data set that compares the dramatically different air pollution and health outcomes that occurred during 1950-1980 when a distinctive policy of providing free coal for heating was provided only to areas in northern China bounded by the Huai River and the Qinling Mountain range.  There were dramatically higher pollution levels in this area and dramatically increased mortality due exclusively to this pollution.  The study enables consideration of the health impacts of  currently high air pollution levels con China.   The air pollution levels during this period are high compared to developed countries but not atypical for many Chinese (and Indian) cities today.  Thuis the terrible health problems experienced under this policy are occurring today.

This paper’s findings suggest that an arbitrary Chinese policy that greatly increases total suspended particulates (TSP) air pollution is causing the 500 million residents of Northern China to lose more than 2.5 billion life years of life expectancy. The quasi-experimental empirical approach is based on China’s Huai River policy, which provided free winter heating via the provision of coal for boilers in cities North of the Huai River but denied heat to the South. Using a regression discontinuity design based on distance from the Huai River, we find that ambient concentrations of TSP are about 184 μg/m3 (95% CI: 61, 307) or 55% higher in the North. Further, the results indicate that life expectancies are about 5.5 (95% CI: 0.8, 10.2) years lower in the North due to an increased incidence of cardiorespiratory mortality. More generally, the analysis suggests that long-term exposure to an additional 100 μg/m3 of TSP is associated with a reduction in life expectancy at birth of about 3.0 years (95% CI: 0.4, 5.6).



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