The equivalent of the population of the Wellington region dies each year in China because of air pollution, according to the country's former Health Minister.
Chen Zhu, 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.
Chen's claim came in a commentary in December's issue of the Lancet, the respected medical journal, co-written with Wang Jinnan, Ma Guoxia and Zhang Yanshen from China's 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 500,000 people die prematurely each year as a result of outdoor air pollution in China," Chen and his fellow authors wrote. He added that air pollution had become "the fourth biggest threat to the health of Chinese people" - behind heart disease, dietary risk and smoking - and that lung cancer was "now the leading cause of death from malignant tumours in the country".
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Chen, who was Health Minister until last year and remains a senior official on the standing committee of China's legislature, said the country "now produces the largest number of major pollutants in the world" and accounted for half the world's coal consumption. The estimate quoted 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 caused 1.2 million premature deaths in China in 2010 alone.
Chen said the Chinese Government had now enacted "tough measures" in order to fight the smog.