By giving free coal to everybody in the north of the country for decades, the Chinese government has inadvertently provided researchers with dramatic proof of the damage heavy air pollution does to health. A new study examining decades of data has found that life expectancy in southern China is 5.5 years longer than in northern China, and the difference is almost entirely the result of heart and lung diseases caused by particulate pollution from burning coal, reports the Los Angeles Times.
The researchers estimate that the air pollution cut a staggering 2.5 billion years off the lives of the 500 million residents of northern China. "It's a huge loss. Air pollution in China is really damaging people's health much more seriously than the findings in previous literature" would suggest, says one of the study's authors. "After this study, there should be no argument over whether we should take the air pollution issue seriously." The free coal policy ended in 1980, but northern China is still home to most of the country's coal-burning power plants and researchers believe life expectancies there will remain lower for decades to come, National Geographic reports.