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      Ambient Air Pollution and Socioeconomic Status in China


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          Air pollution disparities by socioeconomic status (SES) are well documented for the United States, with most literature indicating an inverse relationship (i.e., higher concentrations for lower-SES populations). Few studies exist for China, a country accounting for 26% of global premature deaths from ambient air pollution.


          Our objective was to test the relationship between ambient air pollution exposures and SES in China.


          We combined estimated year 2015 annual-average ambient levels of nitrogen dioxide ( NO 2 ) and fine particulate matter [PM 2.5 μ m in aerodynamic diameter ( PM 2.5 )] with national demographic information. Pollution estimates were derived from a national empirical model for China at 1 -km spatial resolution; demographic estimates were derived from national gridded gross national product (GDP) per capita at 1 -km resolution, and (separately) a national representative sample of 21,095 individuals from the China Health and Retirement Longitudinal Study (CHARLS) 2015 cohort. Our use of global data on population density and cohort data on where people live helped avoid the spatial imprecision found in publicly available census data for China. We quantified air pollution disparities among individual’s rural-to-urban migration status; SES factors (education, occupation, and income); and minority status. We compared results using three approaches to SES measurement: individual SES score, community-averaged SES score, and gridded GDP per capita.


          Ambient NO 2 and PM 2.5 levels were higher for higher-SES populations than for lower-SES population, higher for long-standing urban residents than for rural-to-urban migrant populations, and higher for the majority ethnic group (Han) than for the average across nine minority groups. For the three SES measurements (individual SES score, community-averaged SES score, gridded GDP per capita), a 1-interquartile range higher SES corresponded to higher concentrations of 6 9 μ g / m 3 NO 2 and 3 6 μ g / m 3 PM 2.5 ; average concentrations for the highest and lowest 20th percentile of SES differed by 41–89% for NO 2 and 12–25% for PM 2.5 . This pattern held in rural and urban locations, across geographic regions, across a wide range of spatial resolution, and for modeled vs. measured pollution concentrations.


          Multiple analyses here reveal that in China, ambient NO 2 and PM 2.5 concentrations are higher for high-SES than for low-SES individuals; these results are robust to multiple sensitivity analyses. Our findings are consistent with the idea that in China’s current industrialization and urbanization stage, economic development is correlated with both SES and air pollution. To our knowledge, our study provides the most comprehensive picture to date of ambient air pollution disparities in China; the results differ dramatically from results and from theories to explain conditions in the United States. https://doi.org/10.1289/EHP9872

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          Most cited references116

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          A comparative risk assessment of burden of disease and injury attributable to 67 risk factors and risk factor clusters in 21 regions, 1990–2010: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2010

          The Lancet, 380(9859), 2224-2260
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            Is Open Access

            Estimates and 25-year trends of the global burden of disease attributable to ambient air pollution: an analysis of data from the Global Burden of Diseases Study 2015

            Summary Background Exposure to ambient air pollution increases morbidity and mortality, and is a leading contributor to global disease burden. We explored spatial and temporal trends in mortality and burden of disease attributable to ambient air pollution from 1990 to 2015 at global, regional, and country levels. Methods We estimated global population-weighted mean concentrations of particle mass with aerodynamic diameter less than 2·5 μm (PM2·5) and ozone at an approximate 11 km × 11 km resolution with satellite-based estimates, chemical transport models, and ground-level measurements. Using integrated exposure–response functions for each cause of death, we estimated the relative risk of mortality from ischaemic heart disease, cerebrovascular disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, and lower respiratory infections from epidemiological studies using non-linear exposure–response functions spanning the global range of exposure. Findings Ambient PM2·5 was the fifth-ranking mortality risk factor in 2015. Exposure to PM2·5 caused 4·2 million (95% uncertainty interval [UI] 3·7 million to 4·8 million) deaths and 103·1 million (90·8 million 115·1 million) disability-adjusted life-years (DALYs) in 2015, representing 7·6% of total global deaths and 4·2% of global DALYs, 59% of these in east and south Asia. Deaths attributable to ambient PM2·5 increased from 3·5 million (95% UI 3·0 million to 4·0 million) in 1990 to 4·2 million (3·7 million to 4·8 million) in 2015. Exposure to ozone caused an additional 254 000 (95% UI 97 000–422 000) deaths and a loss of 4·1 million (1·6 million to 6·8 million) DALYs from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in 2015. Interpretation Ambient air pollution contributed substantially to the global burden of disease in 2015, which increased over the past 25 years, due to population ageing, changes in non-communicable disease rates, and increasing air pollution in low-income and middle-income countries. Modest reductions in burden will occur in the most polluted countries unless PM2·5 values are decreased substantially, but there is potential for substantial health benefits from exposure reduction. Funding Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Health Effects Institute.
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              The contribution of outdoor air pollution sources to premature mortality on a global scale.

              Assessment of the global burden of disease is based on epidemiological cohort studies that connect premature mortality to a wide range of causes, including the long-term health impacts of ozone and fine particulate matter with a diameter smaller than 2.5 micrometres (PM2.5). It has proved difficult to quantify premature mortality related to air pollution, notably in regions where air quality is not monitored, and also because the toxicity of particles from various sources may vary. Here we use a global atmospheric chemistry model to investigate the link between premature mortality and seven emission source categories in urban and rural environments. In accord with the global burden of disease for 2010 (ref. 5), we calculate that outdoor air pollution, mostly by PM2.5, leads to 3.3 (95 per cent confidence interval 1.61-4.81) million premature deaths per year worldwide, predominantly in Asia. We primarily assume that all particles are equally toxic, but also include a sensitivity study that accounts for differential toxicity. We find that emissions from residential energy use such as heating and cooking, prevalent in India and China, have the largest impact on premature mortality globally, being even more dominant if carbonaceous particles are assumed to be most toxic. Whereas in much of the USA and in a few other countries emissions from traffic and power generation are important, in eastern USA, Europe, Russia and East Asia agricultural emissions make the largest relative contribution to PM2.5, with the estimate of overall health impact depending on assumptions regarding particle toxicity. Model projections based on a business-as-usual emission scenario indicate that the contribution of outdoor air pollution to premature mortality could double by 2050.

                Author and article information

                Environ Health Perspect
                Environ Health Perspect
                Environmental Health Perspectives
                Environmental Health Perspectives
                08 June 2022
                June 2022
                : 130
                : 6
                : 067001
                [ 1 ]Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Washington , Seattle, Washington, USA
                [ 2 ]Institute of Social Survey Research, Peking University , Beijing, China
                [ 3 ]Department of Earth System Science, Tsinghua University , Beijing, China
                [ 4 ]National School of Development, Peking University , Beijing, China
                Author notes
                Address correspondence to Julian D. Marshall, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Washington, 201 More Hall, Box 352700, Seattle, WA 98195-2700 USA. E-mail: jdmarsh@ 123456uw.edu

                EHP is an open-access journal published with support from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, National Institutes of Health. All content is public domain unless otherwise noted.

                : 22 June 2021
                : 26 April 2022
                : 29 April 2022

                Public health
                Public health


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