Higher socioeconomic status linked to increased air pollution exposure in China

In some countries, including the United States, socioeconomic factors such as higher income and education correlate with less exposure to outdoor air pollution. But this isn’t the case in China. In fact, it’s the exact opposite.

For the first time, a University of Washington led team has uncovered that people living in China who have a higher socioeconomic status are actually more exposed to outdoor air pollution, also known as ambient air pollution. This finding runs contrary to existing studies conducted throughout North America, which have shown that higher pollution levels tend to be experienced among people with lower socioeconomic status.

The findings were published June 8 in Environmental Health Perspectives.

“Environmental disparities reflect a location’s history, culture, economics and power dynamics,” said co-author Julian Marshall, UW professor of civil and environmental engineering. “Those factors differ between the U.S. and China, so we see different patterns in environmental inequalities.”

While disparities in ambient air pollution are well-studied between different countries, variations within-country have been poorly studied except for in a few high-income countries. China accounts for one-fourth of the total 4 million worldwide deaths per year attributed to ambient air pollution, which is associated with stroke, chronic respiratory diseases and lung cancer.

The researchers investigated ambient nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and fine particulate matter (PM2.5) concentrations. The team selected these pollutants because they are widely tracked and have health effects associated with exposures. Also, estimates of pollution levels are newly available at small-scale spatial resolution (1 kilometer).

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