Jan. 05 2018

Beijing Meeting Sets Sights on a Healthier Environment

Mailman School faculty join with Chinese scientists and officials to consider research and policy options to curb environmental threats to health

Following record-breaking smog in Beijing in 2013, the Chinese government declared a “war on pollution,” implementing a national plan to improve the environment. While smog is still commonplace, lately there are more blue sky days. According to one recent study, between 2013 and 2015 alone, air pollution levels across the country dropped by 21 percent.

This past November, Mailman School environmental health scientists joined with Chinese researchers and officials in Beijing to discuss the latest science and policy options, while laying the groundwork for a larger international meeting on the environment later this year. Held at the Columbia Global Center in Bejing, the recent meeting was organized and moderated by faculty members Deliang Tang and Frederica Perera.

“The research is clear: a clean environment is critical for human health,” says Tang, associate professor of Environmental Health Sciences. “While we’ve seen important progress, much work is still needed, particularly in the face of global climate change.”

Among those attending the meeting were representatives from the Chinese Center for Disease Control, Chinese Academy of Environmental Planning, and several top Chinese universities. They were joined by staff from the World Health Organization, U.S. National Cancer Institute, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the U.S. Embassy.

Meeting discussion spanned topics from climate change to the health risks of pollution, particularly as it affects children, as well as the health and economic benefits of policies to curb it. Some attendees stressed the need for policies that account for local environmental and economic conditions (South China, for example, sees less smog and more toxic e-waste). Others called for more detailed measurements to capture the chemical composition of air pollution.  

The Beijing meeting also addressed plans for a larger international conference—the Second International Forum on Environment and Health, scheduled for the fall. The previous conference, also organized by Tang and Perera, was held in 2013 at the height of Beijing’s smog crisis. According to Tang, it was unique in bringing together scientists and policymakers. The upcoming conference will employ a similar configuration to review environmental challenges through the lens of health, economics, and policy, with an emphasis on global partnerships—particularly between China and the United States.

Tang and Perera, the director of the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health, have been studying environmental health in China for the better part of a decade. One study documented how the government’s decision to close a coal plant in Tongliang, China, an area once known to have the world’s most polluted air, led both to cleaner air and improved health—as seen in sharp improvements in developmental scores in two-year-olds. Another study, in Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi province, demonstrated that government policies to curb pollution led to fewer hospital admissions and premature deaths. The economic impact of reduced death and disability, they found, translated to several billion yuan.

Research in both cities continues. Already, Tang says, Tongliang has become a textbook case for environmental health interventions in China, and Chinese officials now hold up Taiyuan as an example of the gains that can be achieved through sound environmental policies. 

“Scientists and policymakers can no longer work in isolation,” he says. “We must partner to improve environmental health in China and around the world.”