A 20-year study examining air pollution data from across China finds that life expectancy in the North of the country has been reduced by 5.5 years.
The researchers found that a seemingly arbitrary Mao-era economic policy on coal-fired boilers for winter heating created dramatic differences in air quality within China. North of the Huai River, the government provided free coal, while to the south, people were essentially denied central heat. In effect, this policy created two experimental groups that could be compared with each other, and the impact of burning coal on air quality -- and on health -- could be isolated and quantified.
"We will never, thank goodness, have a randomized, controlled trial where we expose some people to more pollution and other people to less pollution over the course of their lifetimes," said MIT's Michael Greenstone, one of the authors. "It's not that the Chinese government set out to cause [a negative effect on health]. This was the unintended consequence" of the policy at the time.
Greenstone and his coauthors found that north of the river, total suspended particulates, or TSPs, were over 500 micrograms per cubic meter, or 55% higher than levels in the south. Life expectancy in the north was 5.5 years lower -- almost entirely because of higher incidences of cardiorespiratory deaths.
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