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UK Supports New Research into Toxic Fumes Polluting Beijing

New research into toxic fumes polluting a Chinese megacity could help protect the health of millions in the coming decades.

New research into toxic fumes polluting a Chinese megacity could help protect the health of millions in the coming decades. Air pollution reached "hazardous" levels in Beijing as global leaders met in Paris to thrash out a deal to cut fossil fuel emissions worldwide. Commuters (pictured) were forced to cover their mouths to prevent inhaling the smoke. Credit: Ted Garnett

Air pollution reached "hazardous" levels in Beijing on last week, as global leaders met in Paris to thrash out a deal to cut fossil fuel emissions worldwide.

Urban air pollution poses a serious threat to human health, putting those living in some of the world's largest cities at higher risk of cancer, heart and lung conditions and premature death.

But new research with £5·5m UK backing will shed light on severe air pollution in Beijing, helping to solve a problem likely to touch the lives of millions, as cities continue to expand worldwide.

Five four-year research projects receiving funding as part of the Atmospheric Pollution & Human Health in a Chinese Megacity (APHH China) programme will start in January 2016.

Funded by NERC, the Medical Research Council (MRC) and the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC), UK and Chinese scientists aim to identify the concentrations and sources of urban air pollution in Beijing, how people are exposed, how it affects their health, and what can be done about it.

Across the globe, populations are rising and more people are living in cities. This increase will be most dramatic in Asia and Africa, which are now the least urbanised but on track for huge urban development.

This will lead to more 'megacities' - metropolitan areas with a total population in excess of ten million people - posing a range of challenges including social and cultural change, crime and terrorism, homelessness, traffic congestion, urban sprawl, and serious environmental issues.

In China, urban air pollution is a serious problem. The occurrence of 'haze' - a mist of airborne pollutants - has become more severe and frequent over the past sixty years in urban areas in China. Five hundred million people in 86 cities are thought to be affected by it. As a consequence, there has been an increase of asthma and other respiratory problems in children.

NSFC has invested 40m yuan (£4m) towards the APHH China programme. Of the grants from NERC and MRC, £3m is from the Newton Fund - part of the UK government's official development assistance aiming to develop science and innovation partnerships that promote the economic development and welfare of developing countries. The APHH China programme is one of several collaborations between NERC and NSFC using Newton Fund money. This programme and joint funding process has been facilitated by the Research Councils UK (RCUK) China office.

NERC's chief executive, Professor Duncan Wingham, said:

"Air pollution poses a serious threat to human health in megacities across the globe and will be an increasing challenge as the process of mass urbanisation continues to unfold, particularly in the developing world. NERC is investing in high-quality scientific research in Beijing, where air pollution is already affecting the population's health. It's a pressing issue and the results of this research will help inform action on what can be done to minimise the risks of air pollution to populations in the future."

Professor Lu Rongkai, deputy director general of the Bureau of International Co-operation, NSFC, said:

"Atmospheric Pollution & Human Health is one of the first China-UK major collaborative research plans co-organised and co-funded by the National Natural Science Foundation of China and the Research Councils UK. It is an innovative mode of co-operation for China and UK, and reflects the increasing volume and scale of China-UK scientific co-operation.

It is our hope that, through this funding scheme, with the combination of scientific advantages of China and UK, the researchers from the two countries can conduct in-depth cross-disciplinary collaborative research in relevant areas such as the source process of atmospheric pollution, its influence on human health and the preventive solutions, and ultimately make contributions to improving air quality and human health."

The five four-year projects awarded funding are:

  • Sources & emissions of air pollutants in Beijing (AIRPOLL-Beijing) UK principal investigator Professor Roy Harrison, University of Birmingham. Chinese principal investigator Professor Kebin He, Tsinghua University.
  • An integrated study of air pollution processes in Beijing (AIRPRO)
  • UK principal investigator Professor Alistair Lewis, University of York, and the National Centre for Atmospheric Science. Chinese principal investigator Professor Pingqing Fu, Institute of Atmospheric Physics (CAS).
  • Air pollution impacts on cardiopulmonary disease in Beijing: An integrated study of exposure science, toxicogenomics & environmental epidemiology (APIC-ESTEE)
  • UK principal investigator Dr Miranda Loh, Institute of Occupational Medicine. Chinese principal investigator Dr Zhiwei Sun, Capital Medical University.
  • Effects of air pollution on cardiopulmonary disease in urban & peri-urban residents in Beijing (AIRLESS)
  • UK principal investigator Professor Frank Kelly, King's College London. Chinese principal investigator Professor Tong Zhu, Peking University.
  • Integrated assessment of the emission-health-socioeconomics nexus & air pollution mitigation solutions & interventions in Beijing (INHANCE)
  • UK principal investigator Professor Dabo Guan, University of East Anglia. Chinese principal investigator Dr Shu Tao, Peking University.

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