9 July 2013 — A report published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has found that 500 million residents have had their life expectancy reduced by an average of 5.5 years due to a Chinese coal policy that increased total suspended particulate air pollution.

All up, the 500 million residents of Northern China are estimated to have lost 2.5 billion life years.

Between 1950–1980, the Chinese government established free winter heating through free coal for fuel boilers. Because of budget limitations, the policy was only extended to cities in North China. This gave researchers a comparison group to study the effect of what is known as the Huai River policy.

The study authors found that during the 1990s life expectancies were 5.5 years lower in cities to the north of the Huai River, almost entirely due to an increased incidence of cardiorespiratory mortality. Particulate matter was 55 per cent higher.

Data from 2003 to 2008 also indicated that concentrations of particulate matter smaller than 10µm was still 26 per cent higher north of the Huai River, suggesting residents there continue to have shortened lifespans.

The authors said these results could explain why China’s rapid economic growth had only led to relatively minor growth in life expectancy.

They said their study also provided a basis to estimate the effects of particulate matter from coal on human health in other cities, countries and time periods, with long-term exposure to an additional 100µg/m3 of total suspended particulates associated with a three-year reduction in life expectancy from birth.

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