BEIJING, China — A recent report indicated that preliminary examination of bacteria in Chinese smog might contain antibiotic-resistant genes. The Beijing Evening News is doing its best to quell public panic in light of yet another study that suggests harmful bacteria is living in the dense Chinese smog blanketing major cities. State news outlets are offering health advice to minimize illness during smog attacks.
This is not the first time that China will have to contend with pointed recriminations about their astounding carbon footprint and the associated health concerns. China is well aware of the hazards of the thick layer of smog that regularly coats its largest cities, particularly Beijing where citizens commonly walk around with facemasks to protect themselves. However, the Chinese government is allegedly skeptical about the reports that there are antibiotic-resistant bacteria living in that smog. After all, China has made significant strides in correcting the impact of its rapid social and economic progress.
Air Pollution Around the Globe
Air pollution is a public health crisis around the globe with those living in population-dense cities at the highest risk. Overall, 92 percent of the global population lives in areas with poor air quality. The World Health Organization estimates air pollution both indoors and outdoors is responsible for at least three million deaths per year. Of those deaths, 90 percent occur in impoverished communities, and nearly two out of three occur in South-East Asia.
Sustained exposure to polluted air increases risk of respiratory infections, stroke, cardiovascular disease and lung cancer. Given the inability of impoverished people to access adequate healthcare, this ultimately means that vulnerable people suffer the most from air pollution.
Air Pollution in China
In China, the relationship between air quality and public health is immutable. The people of China want long-sustained durations of good air quality while also managing or decreasing air pollution. For those with higher education and higher income level, such a desire may be attainable. However, for Chinese citizens in rural areas where they have less education and lower-incomes, it is not as easy to reach the goal of good air quality.
While rural citizens protest against air pollution from local factories and coal mining, few express any concern over their own daily household habits that contribute to poor air quality. At least 600 million people use wood and coal-burning stoves in their homes in China although most are unaware of the significant health risks they are inviting. Some studies indicate that the problem of air pollution in China might be just as problematic in rural areas as in urban ones. And unfortunately, it does not seem like the Chinese government is making any efforts to manage the public health of its impoverished, most-at-risk citizens.
Chinese Government Efforts
It seems the Chinese government is focusing solely on urban areas to curb the country’s staggering air pollution problem. Beijing, which is one of the most air-polluted cities in the world, receives much of the attention in regards to tackling the air quality issue. One strategy is to reduce coal power stations and transition to natural gas. Another approach is the production of massive air purification towers, which filter and then pump clean air into the city.
As of last year, the Chinese government forced tens of thousands of factories to clean up operations or close, which resulted in a significant reduction of winter smog. But at what price? The mad dash rush to reduce air pollution had unintended side effects. Closing factories meant people losing thousands of jobs. Also, transitioning to natural gas so quickly meant that people living in and around Beijing lost coal-fired heating without receiving any replacement. This left millions to suffer freezing conditions without heat.
The Chinese government is declaring the battle won in spite of the unintended suffering of Chinese citizens and new economic problems that the government must now contend with. For Beijing, which now enjoys blue skies in the winter when smog used to be the worst, one must wonder if the bacteria living off the profound air pollution has been a blessing or a curse. After staving off public panic due to health concerns, Beijing must now address an impending economic and social collapse as well as the neglected health of those still depending on coal in the poor regions around China’s capital city.
– Rachel Kingsley