Not only is pollution is shortening lives in the world’s most populous nation, but it is also an inescapable reminder of the trade-offs at the heart of China’s transition from a developing country into a prosperous, modern nation. While the Communist Party has been legitimized by the thriving economy, it now needs to balance the rush for economic growth against the threats to life and health.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang gives an address during a news conference in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing December 6, 2013. Photo courtesy of Resuters/Mark Ralston
China’s premier, Li Keqiang, has declared “war on pollution,” saying that the country would tackle it with the same determination it has used to fight poverty in the past three decades. Spoken at the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress earlier this year in March, Li’s remarks reflect government recognition of public displeasure over pollution and its impact on people’s health. Garlic Liu, a college student in Beijing said in an in person interview (Liu is currently studying abroad in Columbia University) “I can’t go out everyday. I have to choose when to go out so I don’t make my asthma worse. All my friends do the same thing. We hang out not when it is convenient for us but when it’s convenient for the weather. We all have a pollution app on our phones to check when it’s a good day.”
North River Wastewater Treatment Plant in New York City with a boat. Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons
Every time people use water, it goes back down the drain less purified and clean than it was when it came out of the faucet. People, especially in the United States, take water accessibility and purity for granted so it is easy to forget about the implications of polluting water after use. While water may appear to be clean, it is often times contaminated with micropollutants after human use. Micropollutants are widely misunderstood because they are not easily found or observed. They are organic, mineral, or synthetic substances that accumulate in the environment and can have a negative affect on organisms because of their toxic nature. This definition exemplifies the “pollutant” part of micropollutant, but micropollutants are also characterized by the small size. These substances are found to be as small as a few atoms that make a molecule to as large as 5 mm in diameter. Three types of pollution that were previously discussed in depth are pharmaceuticals, antibacterial active ingredients, and microplastics.
Clean air is beneficial and necessary for human life, but much of the air we breathe in is not clean. Air pollution refers to the condition in which air contains a high concentration of harmful chemicals. The results of breathing such air cause disastrous public health fallouts that can range from chronic infections to lung cancer on a large population scale. This deadly pollution is caused by solid particles and poisonous gases in the air that is fatal to health, otherwise known as air pollutants, including carbon monoxide, oxides of nitrogen and sulfur dioxide.
In a normal exchange during respiration, clean air is breathed in, processing oxygen and releasing carbon dioxide. However, a large component of polluted air is carbon dioxide. Breathing polluted air is essentially breathing in the very gas your body is trying to eliminate through exhalation. Lungs are largely made up of exposed membrane. Thus, breathed in air is filtered through this membrane to the air sacs. It is in these air sacs that oxygen is exchanged with carbon dioxide which is then exhaled. When breathed in air is polluted, the oxygen that is sent throughout the body includes the toxins that polluted the air to begin with. These toxins begin breaking down cellular structures in the lungs and throughout your respiratory system, resulting in chronic respiratory distress.
- Prozac: an antidepressant with Fluoxetine. Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons
Prozac: an antidepressant with Fluoxetine. Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.
What happens when people take prescribed medications? The obvious, immediate effect is helping the person with their ailment, but unfortunately, drugs are also getting into the environment through wastewater and are harming aquatic life. When people are prescribed pharmaceuticals, the patients’ assumptions are that their bodies absorb all of the chemicals and that is what causes them to feel better. In actuality, the body usually interacts with the medication, but the active chemical can sometimes remain undisturbed and is eventually secreted from the body as waste in the bathroom. The water is then treated, but not on a small enough scale to filter out most pharmaceuticals. Once the wastewater is integrated into lakes and streams, the drugs are still present in the water and wildlife is exposed to human medication.
One type of drug that is consistently found in aquatic environments is fluoxetine. Fluoxetine is the active ingredient is Prozac, an antidepressant medication that can also be used to reduce the negative symptoms of anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders on patients. Fluoxetine works by increasing the activity of serotonin in the brain, a chemical responsible for giving people a sense of happiness.
In terms of scale and speed, China’s economic transformation has no historical precedent: since initiating market reforms in 1978 China has shifted from a centrally planned economy to a market based one. In 1978 China was one of the poorest country’s in the world with its GDP only one-fortieth of America’s and only 16% of its population living above the poverty line. Since then it has demonstrated a stunning economic reversal which many deem as the “Chinese economic miracle”: while in 1978 only 16% of its population lived above the poverty line, by 2005 only 16% lived below it; while in 1978 its GDP was only one-fortieth of America’s, with an astounding rate of 8% real per capita GDP growth annually, China’s GDP is now almost one-fifth of the U.S. level. This rapid and sustained improvement in average living standard has occurred in a country with more than 20 percent of the world’s population (population of 1.3 billion people), thus causing China to be the world’s second-largest economy as well as lifting 500 million people out of poverty.
Photo courtesy of econews.com. Chinese workers manufacturing solar panels.
However, all industrial nations one day hit an environmental turning point, an event that galvanizes the population to realize the ecological consequences of rapid growth. In America in 1969, that event occurred when the Cuyahoga river in Ohio, thick with pollutants, caught fire. America’s Environmental Protection Agency was founded the next year. The rank smog in Beijing could join the ranks of these environmental turning points. A swathe of warm air has settled over the Chinese capital like a duvet and trapped beneath it pollution from the region’s 200 coal-fired power plants. The concentration of pollutant particles hit 900 parts per million—40 times the level the World Health Organization deems safe.