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Air quality poses emerging global health crisis

by Bibiana Campos Seijo
November 7, 2016 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 94, ISSUE 44

Credit: Shutterstock
Many residents of China’s cities don masks to cope with the polluted air.
Credit: Shutterstock
Many residents of China’s cities don masks to cope with the polluted air.

In my previous editorial, I wrote about my recent visit to Beijing to attend a symposium organized by ACS in collaboration with the Institute of Chemistry of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. I had a very productive and enjoyable visit, but while I was there, I struggled with two things. One was the lack of access to sites such as Google, Twitter, and YouTube. This was more annoying than problematic.

The second, more important and longer lasting, as I’m still feeling it, was the poor air quality.

Air pollution is a well-documented problem in China, killing an average of 4,000 people per day, according to a study by the climate advocacy group Berkeley Earth (PLOS One 2015, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0135749). The largest factor is coal, with China burning almost as much coal annually as all other world countries combined. In Beijing, this is aggravated by more than 5 million motor vehicles on the roads.

It rained before I got there, so on arrival the skies in Beijing were blue, sunny, and apparently clean. The air quality deteriorated dramatically, however, and I suffered from a cough and sore throat even after I decided to wear a face mask when out and about in the city.

Local officials are under pressure to take measures to improve air quality after the central government declared a war on pollution a couple of years ago. This has resulted in the introduction of monitoring stations, the establishment of standards for air quality and transportation fuels, and the decision to move factories out of certain cities. Regrettably, this pressure has led to isolated cases of corruption, such as the recently reported case in the northern regions of the country. There, three environmental officials have been questioned by the police after air-quality tests were allegedly tampered with by putting cotton wool in the sampling equipment to filter out particles, dust, and impurities. A fourth official is accused of manipulating data stored in a computer at an air sampling station. It’s been suggested that the individuals involved did this for “fear of punishment because of the poor quality of the data collected.”

But air pollution is not a problem only for Beijing, or even China. I was interested to read that places such as the U.K. are moving to curb pollution and protect public health. The U.K.’s Supreme Court has ordered the British government to take urgent action to reduce air pollution.

It all started in 2011, when ClientEarth, a group of lawyers focused on using existing laws to protect the environment, first took the U.K. to court. The case was referred to the European Court and then recently sent back to the Supreme Court, giving it power to ensure that the government act to keep air pollution levels below legal limits.

In U.K. cities, much of the air pollution consists of NO2 and can be attributed to traffic. Interestingly, European cities have some of the highest levels of NO2 in the world because diesel cars, which are found in much larger proportions in Europe than elsewhere, produce more NO2 than gasoline cars.

Whatever the source of the pollution, this is a very real, global problem, with high economic and social costs. Governments must act and urgent action is required to avoid public health crises scaling up.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.



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