By Tan Ee Lyn
HONG KONG (Reuters) - China's worsening air pollution, after decades of unbridled economic growth, cost the country $112 billion in 2005 in lost economic productivity, a study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has found.
The figure, which also took into account people's lost leisure time because of illness or death, was $22 billion in 1975, according to researchers at the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change.
The study, published in the journal Global Environmental Change, measured the harmful effects of two air pollutants: ozone and particulates, which can lead to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.
"The results clearly indicate that ozone and particulate matter have substantially impacted the Chinese economy over the past 30 years," one of the researchers, Noelle Selin, an assistant professor of engineering systems and atmospheric chemistry at MIT, said in a statement.
Ground-level ozone is produced by chemical plants, gasoline pumps, paint, power plants, motor vehicles and industrial boilers. Inhaling it can result in inflammation of the airways, coughing, throat irritation, discomfort, chest tightness, wheezing and shortness of breath.
Past studies have shown that high daily ozone concentrations are accompanied by increased asthma attacks, hospital admissions, mortality, and other markers of disease.
Particulates -- spewed out by power plants, industries and automobiles -- are microscopic solids and droplets so tiny they penetrate deep into the lungs and can even get into the bloodstream.
Lengthy exposure can result in coughing, breathing difficulties, impaired lung function, irregular heartbeat and premature death in people with heart or lung disease.
MORE DAMAGING THAN THOUGHT
The researchers made their calculations using atmospheric modeling tools and global economic modeling, which were useful in assessing the impact of ozone, that China started monitoring only recently. Using this methodology, they were able to simulate historical ozone levels.
Kelly Sims Gallagher, an associate professor of energy and environmental policy at Tufts University's Fletcher School, who was not involved in the study, said the findings revealed the problem was even worse than thought.
"This important study confirms earlier estimates of major damages to the Chinese economy from air pollution, and in fact, finds that the damages are even greater than previously thought," Gallagher said.
China is a large emitter of mercury, carbon dioxide and other pollutants. In the 1980s, China's particulate concentrations were 10 to 16 times higher than the World Health Organization's annual guidelines, the researchers said.
Even after significant improvements by 2005, the concentrations were five times higher than what is considered safe.
Chinese authorities are aware of the devastating effects of the degradation to the environment and are taking steps to tackle it.
This month, authorities announced plans to reduce air pollution by 15 percent in the capital, Beijing, by 2015, and 30 percent by 2020 through phasing out old cars, relocating factories and planting new forests.
(Editing by Robert Birsel)