Cancer is now the leading cause of death in China. Chinese Ministry of Health data implicate cancer in close to a quarter of all deaths countrywide. As is common with many countries as they industrialize, the usual plagues of poverty — infectious diseases and high infant mortality — have given way to diseases more often associated with affluence, such as heart disease, stroke, and cancer.
While this might be expected in China’s richer cities, where bicycles are fast being traded in for cars and meat consumption is climbing, it also holds true in rural areas. In fact, reports from the countryside reveal a dangerous epidemic of “cancer villages” linked to pollution from some of the very industries propelling China’s explosive economy. By pursuing economic growth above all else, China is sacrificing the health of its people, ultimately risking future prosperity.
Lung cancer is the most common cancer in China. Deaths from this typically fatal disease have shot up nearly fivefold since the 1970s. In China’s rapidly growing cities, like Shanghai and Beijing, where particulates in the air are often four times higher than in New York City, nearly 30 percent of cancer deaths are from lung cancer.
Dirty air is associated with not only a number of cancers, but also heart disease, stroke, and respiratory disease, which together account for over 80 percent of deaths countrywide. According to the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, the burning of coal is responsible for 70 percent of the emissions of soot that clouds out the sun in so much of China; 85 percent of sulfur dioxide, which causes acid rain and smog; and 67 percent of nitrogen oxide, a precursor to harmful ground level ozone. Coal burning is also a major emitter of carcinogens and mercury, a potent neurotoxin. Coal ash, which contains radioactive material and heavy metals, including chromium, arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury, is China’s number one source of solid industrial waste. The toxic ash that is not otherwise used in infrastructure or manufacturing is stored in impoundments, where it can be caught by air currents or leach contaminants into the groundwater.
Coal pollution combined with emissions from China’s burgeoning industries and the exhaust of a fast-growing national vehicle fleet are plenty enough to impair breathing and jeopardize health. But that does not stop over half the men in China from smoking tobacco. Smoking is far less common among women; less than 3 percent light up. Still, about 1 in 10 of the estimated 1 million Chinese who die from smoking-related diseases each year are exposed to carcinogenic second hand smoke but do not smoke themselves.