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Your Environment. Your Health.

Beijing Olympics Pollution Controls Could Save Lives

Staci L. Massey Simonich, Ph.D., Dave Stone, Ph.D., and Shu Tao, Ph.D.
Oregon State University
NIEHS Grants P30ES000210 and P42ES016465

A study supported by the NIEHS Superfund Research Program finds that the air pollution control measures put in place in Beijing during the 2008 Olympic Games would cut the lifetime risk of lung cancer almost in half. If the controls were continued, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) pollution would drop dramatically and could translate to about 10,000 fewer lifetime cases of lung cancer. Beijing is only one of several large metropolitan areas in China that have unhealthy levels of air pollution, largely from the burning of coal, biomass and automobile exhaust in a rapidly growing economy.

The findings were published by researchers from Oregon State University and Peking University in Beijing. This is one of the first efforts to actually study the health benefits of pollution control strategies in a Chinese population. The research looked at the chemical composition and carcinogenic impact of a range of PAH compounds that result from almost any type of combustion, ranging from wood burning stoves to coal-fired power plants or automobile exhaust. The research found that in Beijing, a metropolitan area with 22 million people, the existing level of PAH pollution would lead to about 21,200 lifetime cases of lung cancer, but that would drop to 11,400 cases if pollution controls similar to those imposed during the 2008 Olympics were sustained.

Other OSU research has also found that the level of pollutants in some Asian nations is now so high that PAH compounds are crossing the Pacific Ocean and being deposited in the U.S. China is now the leading emitter of PAH pollutants in the world. According to the study "PAH pollution was definitely reduced by the actions China took during the 2008 Olympics, such as restricting vehicle use, decreasing coal combustion and closing some pollution-emitting factories."

Some, but not all, of the steps taken during the Olympics have been continued; however, the number of vehicles in Beijing, for instance, is continuing to increase 13 percent a year, the report noted. "Controlling vehicle emissions is key to reducing the inhalation cancer risks due to PAH exposure in Chinese megacities," the researchers wrote in their study.

Citation: Jia Y, Stone D, Wang W, Schrlau J, Tao S, Massey Simonich SL 2011. Estimated reduction in cancer risk due to PAH exposures if source control measures during the 2008 Beijing Olympics were sustained. Environ Health Perspect. doi:10.1289/ehp.100310

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