China’s Youngest Lung-Cancer Patient Is Just 8 Years Old, and Pollution Is to Blame

Smog-related cancer deaths in China are soaring. Now children are being affected

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A woman and her son wearing masks walk along a road as heavy smog engulfs the city on Oct. 21, 2013 in Changchun, China

To the list of China’s environmental horrors, add one: an 8-year-old with lung cancer. Doctors at a hospital in coastal Jiangsu province blamed the girl’s condition on pollution, according to a state media. The child, who has not been identified, reportedly lived near a busy road and was exposed to harmful particles and dust. She is being called China’s youngest-ever lung-cancer patient.

The news comes amid growing concern about the health effects of air pollution. Last month the World Health Organization for the first time classified air pollution as a cause of cancer. The agency said air pollution caused 220,000 cancer deaths in 2010 and that more than half of lung-cancer deaths from particulate matter were in East Asia. Lung-cancer deaths in China have multiplied more than four times in the past three decades, according to government statistics.

The problem is particularly bad in northern China, where coal-powered heating systems add extra filth to the mix. These emissions have shortened the lifespans of Chinese people living north of the Huai River by an average of five years, according to a study published this year by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, an American journal. In Beijing, the smog-addled capital, cancer is now the leading cause of death, with lung-cancer rates jumping 60% in a period of 10 years.

(MORE: In China’s Polluted Cities, the Smog May Be Here to Stay)

Chinese urbanites are all too familiar with chest-rattling smog. In the northern Chinese city of Harbin last month, the pollution was so thick that kids were granted a “smog day” off school, roads were closed and planes grounded. State media said the PM 2.5 reading (which measures the level of dangerous particulate matter in the air) “exceeded” 500. A Reuters report put the figure at 1,000, or 40 times higher than what the World Health Organization deems safe. Last year, Beijing endured weeks of off-the-chart pollution that English speakers now refer to as the “airpocalypse.”

Perhaps the only upside of the city-shuttering smog is that it has forced the Chinese government to own up to the problem. This fall, the government announced a new blueprint for cleaning up the air by 2017. The plan calls for 5 billion yuan, or $817 million, to fight pollution. There will also be color-coded emergency measures for bad pollution days in Beijing. On red days, for instance, half the city’s cars will be idled and schools closed. Under a code orange, factories will slow and activities like fireworks and outdoor barbecues will be restricted.

These plans are better than nothing, but many wonder why the government hasn’t done more to keep people safe. After news of the 8-year-old’s diagnosis broke, hundreds of people commented on the story, wishing the child luck and expressing their own fears about living in a region where the air quite literally kills.

Channeling the sentiment of many here, one reader invoked a Chinese idiom: “Hao hao xuexi, tian tian xiang shang,” or, roughly, “Study hard and make progress every day.” Parents and teachers have been saying it for years, urging children to work harder, do better. But to this old phrase, they added a second bit of advice that reflects the dark mood as the country heads into another toxic winter: “Study hard and make progress every day,” they wrote. “And then leave China.”

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