Air pollution in China Greg Baker/Getty Images

What China Can Teach America About Clean Air

As many as 200,000 Americans die prematurely every year because of bad air quality. But while the Trump administration rolls back environmental safeguards in the name of achieving “unbelievable prosperity,” some of the planet’s biggest polluters – led by China – have shown that they know better.

NORTHAMPTON – Every year, more than four million people around the world die prematurely from breathing dirty air. In China alone, the number of deaths attributable to air pollution exceeds one million annually. That figure may not come as a surprise; after all, we are routinely treated to images in the media of thick, sooty smog enveloping Beijing, Shanghai, and other Chinese cities. But America’s air kills, too – and it is getting a lot less attention.

A 2013 MIT study estimated that poor air quality accounts for 200,000 early deaths in the United States each year, more than the number killed by car crashes and diabetes (other studies have put the number lower, closer to 100,000). Yet, while China today is aggressively tackling its air pollution problem, the US is rolling back air-quality protections in the name of economic growth – an ill-conceived strategy that will have a devastating impact on human health.

Ever since the publication of Harvard’s “Six Cities” study in 1993, scientists and public-health officials have been aware of the links between mortality and fine particulate matter, or PM2.5 (airborne particles with a diameter of less than 2.5 microns). When people inhale PM2.5, microscopic solids and liquid droplets of dust, dirt, organic chemicals, and metals can travel deep into the lungs and even enter the bloodstream. Research over the past 20 years has tied PM2.5 to a range of adverse health outcomes, including asthma, acute bronchitis, lung cancer, heart attacks, and cardiorespiratory diseases.

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