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Can China Deal with its Coming Wave of Health Problems?

Can China Deal with its Coming Wave of Health Problems?

China has experienced unprecedented economic growth, yet there is little doubt that China will soon be faced with decades of serious health problems. What problems? Well, according to extensive studies by the US National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), on a population basis about two thirds of all health problems are environmentally related; the remaining one third being primarily genetic. What is environmental? It is the air that we breathe and the food that we eat. Good quality water is also an environmental factor, and exercise might also be environmentally-related. In the US we have done a good deal to reduce air and water pollution and ensure the quality of food, but these efforts have not been perfect.

In China, however, the air quality in some areas, e.g. in Beijing, is so bad that some families do not let their children outdoors for as much as half of the entire year. Indoors, it is possible to use air purification systems, if they can be afforded, and the last resort is wearing gas masks, which are quite common. For more details, see:  http://www.theguardian.com/cities/2014/dec/16/beijing-airpocalypse-city-almost-uninhabitable-pollution-china. The new documentary film “Under the Dome”, by Chai Jing, a former CCTV anchor, is all about the considerable air pollution. See:  http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2977859/China-rocked-former-state-TV-news-anchor-linking-baby-s-tumour-country-s-terrible-air-pollution-hard-hitting-film-seen-200-million.html.

But what about food? Chinese food is wonderful cuisine and has great health benefits. However, “Controlling China’s sprawling food supply chain has proved a frustrating endeavor” according to a March 2, 2015 New York Times news article by Brian X. Chen, titled: “China’s Long Food Chain Plugs In.” See:  http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/02/business/international/chinas-long-food-chain-plugs-in.html. This article mentions one of the country’s biggest food scares in 2008, when dairy producers sold milk contaminated with melamine, causing 300,000 babies to be hospitalized and killing six. Also mentioned was last year’s scandal, when a McDonald’s and KFC supplier was caught putting rotten and expired meat into products. In addition, the article mentions how “Penny-pinching chefs cook with waste oil from fryers and sewers, a toxic ingredient known as gutter oil that generally goes unnoticed until diners get sick.” But this article is not only about the problems. It is also about how China’s tech industry is looking to make money by dealing with this problem, that is: by supplying electronic products to Chinese consumers, enabling food to be checked out before it is purchased.

So where is all of this leading? It may be expected that in China, in addition to the news-making acute illnesses such as mentioned above, there will be many chronic illnesses resulting from years of exposure to environmental pollutants in air and food. This would be expected to result in great suffering and place a considerable burden on the Chinese health care system in the long term. That being said, I believe that China will eventually solve this problem in part through the judicious use of technology, but primarily because, unlike the US, China has many government officials who have technical and scientific training and who can, hopefully, get together and solve problems.

3 Responses to Can China Deal with its Coming Wave of Health Problems?

  1. @Bruce Interesting post and consistent with what my best friend observed when he had the opportunity to spend about three weeks in China several years ago. His impression was that it was the cleanest place he’d ever seen because they had so many people sweeping the streets. He also said that China would never be a threat to the U.S. in terms of productivity due to their infrastructure problems – including air and water. If I’m not mistaken, China has 14% of the world’s population and 7% of the fresh water, the Yangtze River, which they’ve been using as a sewer for the past seven centuries.

    • “Thank you for your comments. I have heard similar things. I imagine that China will be able to effectively deal with many of these problems by engaging problem solvers and new technology. In the future, if we are not more environmentally careful, the entire planet could experience even worse problems.”

  2. Thank you for your perspective on China’s environmental pollution problems. I hope it is not all about money in terms of health care, for if it is there is an additional problem. Prevention is still more important than dealing with pollution-related illness. I hope that problem solvers will stay in China and work on improving the situation and that additional problem solvers will also emerge.


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