The equivalent of the population of Bristol dies each year in China because of lethal air pollution, according to Chen Zhu, who was the country’s Health minister until last year.
Mr Chen, who is also a professor of medicine and a leading molecular biologist, is the most senior government official to put a human cost on the smog that regularly clouds Chinese skies.
Until recently, any mention of deaths relating to pollution was strictly censored.
Mr Chen’s claim came in a commentary in December’s issue of the Lancet, co-written with Wang Jinnan, Ma Guoxia and Zhang Yanshen from the Ministry of Environmental Protection.
“Studies by the World Bank, WHO, and the Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning on the effect of air pollution on health concluded that between 350 000 and 500000 people die prematurely each year as a result of outdoor air pollution in China,” Mr Chen and his fellow authors noted.
He added that air pollution has become “the fourth biggest threat to the health of Chinese people” (behind heart disease, dietary risk and smoking) and that lung cancer is “now the leading cause of death from malignant tumours in the country”.
Mr Chen said China “now produces the largest number of major pollutants in the world”, and accounts for half the world\’s coal consumption.
The estimate that the authors quoted, however, is lower than the 2010 Global Burden of Disease Study, also published in the Lancet, which estimated that airborne particles smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter (PM2.5) caused 1.2 million premature deaths in China in 2010 alone.
Mr Chen’s commentary said the Chinese government has now enacted “tough measures” in order to fight the smog.
“According to research results from the Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning, 200,000 people will be prevented from dying prematurely each year if the annual level of PM in Chinese cities reaches the first level standard of 40 micrograms per cubic metre, as set out in the newly revised China National Ambient Air Quality Standards,” he wrote.
Between 2002 and 2011 the incidence of lung cancer in Beijing near doubled. Nationwide, deaths from lung cancer have risen 465 per cent in the last three decades.
Smoking remains the leading cause of lung cancer, but the number of smokers is falling while lung cancer rates are still rising.
Mr Chen’s commentary is particularly notable because in 2007 Chinese censors removed a claim that air pollution caused 350,000 to 400,000 premature deaths from a joint report between the World Bank and the Chinese government.