AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
In China, more than a million people are dying prematurely every year because of what they're breathing, badly polluted air. That's according to a new analysis. As NPR's Rob Stein reports, the death toll is driving home how dangerous pollution has become in China.
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Alarm has been growing in recent years about the air in China. On many days in many cities, the air is thick with smog. Barbara Finamore is an American working to clean up the environment in China.
BARBARA FINAMORE: When you get off the airplane, if you were to travel to Beijing, you would immediately feel your eyes stinging and your throat rasping.
STEIN: It's so bad that people commonly walk the streets wearing masks. Parents won't let their kids play outside.
FINAMORE: There are many days where we cannot see the building across the street. It's a pea soup of pollution. That's how bad it is.
STEIN: And so researchers decided to take a closer look at a massive report about the world's health problems that was released in December to see just how deadly the air really is in China. Robert O'Keefe with the Health Effects Institute in Boston, traveled to Beijing this week to present the results.
ROBERT O'KEEFE: The data shows that in China, approximately 1.2 million people die prematurely from exposure to outdoor air pollution. This is the highest toll in the world and it really reflects the very high levels of air pollution that exist in China today.
STEIN: In fact, about two-thirds of all deaths from air pollution are now occurring in Asia, most of them in China. And air pollution has become the fourth leading cause of death in China.
O'KEEFE: For the most part, air pollution effects are generally manifested in frail populations - people with asthma are generally more susceptible to the effects of air pollution. And also people, even the very young and children who live in highly polluted areas for extended periods of time.
STEIN: The main reason air pollution is such a huge and growing problem is clear, China's explosive growth.
O'KEEFE: Cars are being added and trucks are being added to the streets in major cities at record numbers. Power plants burn significant amounts of very low-grade coal, and the energy consumption in China is rising dramatically.
STEIN: But O'Keefe says there are hints the government is starting to take the issue more seriously. Just the fact that the government allowed O'Keefe to present his report at an open forum in the nation's capital is promising.
O'KEEFE: There was a large amount of Chinese media there. I was very encouraged by that. And I think it's another signal that the government is serious about beginning to engage on this very significant public health problem.
STEIN: The government also recently started doing something else to acknowledge the problem.
O'KEEFE: They've put in place, and this is quite remarkable, a nationwide monitoring network that is reporting, in real time, levels of air pollution. So for the first time, the Chinese government is providing transparent levels of air pollution that the public can actually see.
STEIN: Others agree there are some hints of progress. But Barbara Finamore of the Natural Resources Defense Council says a big reason for that is the new public monitoring system. Even only a few years ago, people just didn't realize what was happening.
FINAMORE: I remember going down the street and people saying, very foggy day today. They didn't recognize that it was smog and certainly deadly smog until that information started becoming available on a real-time basis.
STEIN: Still, Finamore is encouraged by other steps the government is taking, steps to clean up exhaust from cars and trucks and cut sulfur dioxide from coal-fired power plants in half.
FINAMORE: So I think the tide has turned in China. The government recognizes that the people are demanding cleaner air, cleaner water, cleaner food. And they have at least said they're going to do something about it.
STEIN: But the key will be whether the government follows through on its promises to start cleaning up China's filthy air. Rob Stein, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.