China Pollution Beijing March 2013 2
Journalists wearing masks walk on Tiananmen Square, Beijing, in front of the Great Hall of the People, 2013. Reuters

Earlier this week, a research study by the National Academy of Sciences found that coal-burning in northern China contributed to the deaths of over 2.5 million people since the 1990s. The study also found that those who were exposed to higher levels of coal-burning pollution had their life expectancy cut by 5.5 years compared to those in China who were not exposed. Now, government-sponsored experts are debunking the claims made by the study, in an attempt to ease concern among the public.

According to several local state-run media outlets, many experts have been quoted making contradictory claims from the study which has circulated across social media and local news.

The China Daily, for example, published a news story titled “Life expectancy for Beijing residents increases,” which cited statistics that say the average Beijing resident will live two years longer than they would have ten years prior. “The life expectancy of Beijing residents was 81.35 last year,” the newspaper reported, citing the city’s health bureau. “7.85 years more than the national average, and in 2003, the life expectancy was 79.62 years.”

Another example is the Jinghua Daily, a state-run newspaper, which quoted a government-sponsored doctor saying, “Air pollution from coal burning and smog inevitably lead to an increase in cardiovascular disease and correspondingly cause higher mortality. But there are many causes of cardiovascular diseases. And there is no medical study proving a direct link between environmental pollution and mortality from cardiovascular diseases and shorter life expectancy.”

However, the study, compiled by four economic researchers, one of them Chinese, was able to make a definitive comparison between two groups: coal-burning areas of China and non-coal-burning. Because of Mao-era economic policies, people living north of the Huai River in China were given government-subsidized amounts of coal to burn in the winter, and those south of the river were not, because temperatures are warmer. This policy created an unintentional control group which allowed the effects of coal-burning pollution to be considered the cause of the increased amounts of cardiorespiratory deaths north of the river.

Regardless of the contradictory statistics, many had hoped that the newly released study would finally be the evidence necessary to spur China’s government to put in place effective policies and deal with pollution.

“Does it matter how many years it will cost me? What matters to me is that right now, day-to-day, I can feel, smell and breathe pollution. That is why we want change,” one netizen said on Weibo, China’s most popular social media platform. “I’m tired of looking at numbers now, look outside. How can that be denied?” another added.