China has long been known to have a problem with air pollution, but findings of a new study reveal the severity of this issue particularly in terms of its impact on the health and fatality rate of the country's population.   

Berkeley Earth, which collects and analyzes data of the world's air population, reveals that air pollution is responsible for the deaths of 1.6 million people in China per year. The number is equivalent to more than 4,000 deaths per day or 17 percent of all deaths in the country.

In the new study to be published in the journal PLOS ONE this August, researchers from the nonprofit organization, which used statistical technique to analyze environmental issues, looked at the geographic sources of air pollution in China and concluded that much of the toxic smog that shrouds Beijing is from emissions coming from a distant industrial zone.

The paper revealed that about three-eighths of the Chinese population inhale air that, under U.S. standards, rated as unhealthy.

The most dangerous of the pollutants are fine airborne particles that are less than 2.5 microns in diameter, as these can get into the lungs and absorbed by the bloodstream and cause a range of illnesses and health problems, such as strokes, asthma, lung cancer and heart attacks.

The study shows that air pollution is responsible for 17 percent of all deaths in the country each year. The mortality estimates were based on a framework of the World Health Organization (WHO) that projects death rate from five diseases that are associated with exposure to fine-particulate pollution.

The researchers say that the death toll is actually between 700,000 and 2.2 million deaths per year and that 1.6 million is the midpoint of this range.

"Using prefecture level population and pollution data along with national average death rates for the five modeled diseases, we calculate that 1.6 million deaths / year can be attributed to PM2.5 air pollution under the WHO model [95% confidence: 0.7 to 2.2 million deaths/year]," researchers Robert Rohde and Richard Muller, both from Berkeley Earth, write in the study.

The largest single source of air pollution in China is coal, which is currently the major source of fuel in the country, particularly in the northeast where air pollution is worst. Bad air in Beijing, the country's capital, often gets the most press coverage but it does not actually have the worst air in China.

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