Skip to navigationSkip to content

Coal-spewing Hebei factories are killing 40 Beijing babies a year

Pupils wearing face masks to protect heavy smog in Jinan city, east Chinas Shandong province, 14 January 2013. Apple Inc., JPMorgan Chase & Co., Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. gave employees face masks, offered health tips and added office plants as pollution in Beijing hit hazardous levels for a 19th day this month. Beijings city government recommended that its 20 million residents stay indoors for a second day as the local environmental monitoring center gave todays (30 January 2013) air quality the worst rating on its six-level scale. A U.S. Embassy pollution monitor showed air quality in the Chinese capital reached hazardous levels for a fifth consecutive day. Companies across Beijing have sought to protect the health of their current employees while facing the prospect of increasing difficulties in attracting others to a city grappling with pollution levels.(Imaginechina via AP Images
Imaginechina via AP Images
Hebei’s not thinking about the children.
By Gwynn Guilford
BeijingPublished Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Taking in the spring air in northeastern China feels a lot like entering a smokey bar. In May, of the top 10 major cities with severe air pollution, eight were in the northeast corner: Beijing, Tianjin and six cities from Hebei province (link in Chinese). The concentration of PMI 2.5, the toxic particles that are largely caused by coal smoke, rose 19% compared with the previous month in Beijing and Tianjin.

Despite public outrage about the air’s inescapable foulness, there isn’t much evidence out there about its health impact.

The data that does exist isn’t pretty. In 2011, coal-fired plants killed 9,900 people in Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei, according to a recent Greenpeace study. Among adults, strokes and heart attacks were the leading causes of death, causing around two-thirds and one-fifth, respectively. Nearly 200 infants—40 in Beijing—died from coal pollution, while 9,330 children developed asthma and more than 1,000 babies born with low birth weights.

The combined death toll in Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei province.

Interestingly, the incidence of cancer is relatively minor, despite the fact that PM2.5 contains arsenic, lead, cadmium and a medley of other cancer-causing heavy metals.

But cancer rates in China are climbing, even though research hasn’t yet pegged them to the environment. Someone in China is diagnosed with cancer every six minutes, and lung cancer leads the pack, according to a study by the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences and the World Health Organization. The report said it couldn’t determine the impact of environmental pollution on cancer rates.

Beijing’s municipal government has been fleet-footed in addressing pollution emissions. Its recent car emissions standards are practically European, and 90% of its coal-fired equipment are installed with filters.

Its closest neighbors are the real problem. The emissions of Hebei’s 152 plants caused 75% of premature deaths in the region, based on the Greenpeace report, including most of those in Beijing.

Hebei burns around three-quarters of the region’s coal, even though only 10% of Hebei’s coal-burning facilities have emissions filters. As a result, the province emits 77-90% of the region’s total coal emissions, says Greenpeace.

Coal-powered plants based on the size of their emissions. (Beijing is slightly to the upper-left, surrounded by Hebei, while Tianjin obscured by red on the coast.)

Nearly 7,400 Hebei residents have died because of coal emissions, according to Greenpeace. And here’s the rub: Hebei is the sixth-biggest provincial contributor to China’s GDP, and industrial production is responsible for more than half of that. Obviously, China’s central government has its priorities.

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

By providing your email, you agree to the Quartz Privacy Policy.