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Keeping pollution restrictions in Beijing could save lives, a study finds

February 08, 2011|By Jeannine Stein, Los Angeles Times
  • This photo, taken in Beijing a few years before the 2008 Olympics, shows bicyclists passing a factory emitting smoke into the air
This photo, taken in Beijing a few years before the 2008 Olympics, shows… (Peter Parks / AFP/Getty…)

Air pollution in Beijing during the 2008 Olympics was less horrible than usual, thanks to restrictions on certain emissions. But what if those restrictions were in place all the time? A new study finds that the lifetime risk of cancer could be cut nearly in half for people living in that area.

Researchers from Oregon State University and Peking University in Beijing tested levels of 17 carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons before, during and after the Olympic Games. PAHs are a large group of atmospheric pollutants that can come from a number of sources, including combustion from car exhaust and burning coal, oil, wood and garbage.

Some studies have shown that in China about 300,000 people die yearly from lung cancer and heart disease linked to air pollution exposure. During the 2008 Olympic Games car use was limited, and restrictions were placed on coal combustion and some factories that produced pollutants.

Researchers estimated there would be a a 46% drop in approximate risk of inhalation cancer if the restrictions were kept in place over time. That could mean 10,000 fewer lifetime lung cancer cases.

Although some emissions restrictions are still in place, Beijing and other large Chinese cities still have major pollution sources to contend with. The study notes that the number of cars in Beijing increases about 13% a year.

"PAH pollution was definitely reduced by the actions China took during the 2008 Olympics, such as restricting vehicle use, decreasing coal combustion and closing some pollution-emitting factories," said study co-author Staci Simonich in a news release. Simonich, an associate professor of chemistry and environmental toxicology at Oregon State, added, "That's a positive step, and it shows that if such steps were continued it could lead to a significant reduction in cancer risk from these types of pollutants."

The study was released online Tuesday in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

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