BOSTON--High rates of birth defects in China's industrial regions have raised public concerns about the country's heavy reliance on high-polluting coal.
On Jan. 31, the National Population and Family Planning Commission (NPFPC) said that babies are born with physical defects every 30 seconds in China, the state-controlled China Daily reported. The incidence is equal to over 1 million cases per year.
"The government must take measures to prevent birth defects," NPFPC Minister Li Bin was quoted as saying.
The article cited Hu Yali, a professor at Nanjing's Affiliated Drum Tower Hospital, who estimated that pollution accounts for 10 percent of the problem births. The highest rates are in northern China's Shanxi province, NPFPC said without providing specific figures.
"The problem of birth defects is related to environmental pollution, especially in eight main coal zones," said An Huanxiao, director of Shanxi's provincial family planning agency.
In a Radio Free Asia interview, Elizabeth Economy, Asia studies director at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, said concerned officials have been trying for years to draw attention to the human costs of coal.
"What makes this particular effort so significant is that they're drawing on a number of sources from academic experts to officials and others to try to push this into the limelight," Economy said.
Shanxi is the country's biggest coal mining center, producing 630 million tons in 2007, or a quarter of China's output, the official Xinhua news agency reported last year.
China produced over 2.7 billion tons of coal in 2008, more than twice as much as any other country, according to industry and official data. But concern is growing in China over the health risks and environmental costs.
China Daily also cited Western studies by Columbia and Yale Universities linking air pollution to chromosomal damage and the births of underweight babies.
In a separate study released last October, researchers at China's Unirule Institute of Economics and the Shanxi Academy of Social Sciences estimated that the "true costs" of damage from coal topped 1.7 trillion yuan ($255 billion) in 2007, or over 7 percent of GDP, due to pollution and health effects.
"From extraction to combustion, every step in the process of using coal damages the environment," said the study conducted with Greenpeace, the Energy Foundation, and the World Wildlife Fund.
But while the studies show rising concern, it is unclear whether the government will respond. In January, the Land and Resources Ministry said China plans to keep producing more coal, with output rising to 2.9 billion tons by next year and 3.3 billion tons in 2015, according to Reuters.
"China has always been very explicit about the fact that it doesn't see turning away from a coal-based economy until at least 2050," said Economy. "The question is, what are they going to do in terms of taking measures to protect the people?"
Growing public awareness of the health problems has raised the risks of social protests and instability.
"This is something that the government is going to be paying much more attention to. They have to," Economy said.
But the government's instinct is also to keep coal output high because mining means jobs.
"My fear is that they will continue to allow the worst of these mines and coal-fired power plants to operate," said Economy. "It always ends up on the economic development side, and the environment and public health get the short end of the stick."
Mikkal Herberg, research director for the energy security program at the Seattle-based National Bureau of Asian Research, said China plans more coal burning far into the future, despite the health costs, because it has found no alternative for producing power.
"There's a disconnect between policy considerations of the economic imperatives for meeting energy demand and the other issues related to the health consequences, which continue to get worse," Herberg said.
In December, Shanxi officials sought to cut back production temporarily because the economic slowdown has led to lower power demand and coal prices. But over time, government officials are likely to keep output high because they believe the economy will recover this year.
In the meantime, unemployment remains a stability risk that may outweigh health concerns, Herberg said.
"It's another example of all these conflicting pressures that the leadership is under," he said.
"The last thing they want to do is put several million coal miners out of work by reducing production drastically. It's another example of these excruciatingly conflicting goals that they're trying to pursue."