The Stunning Cancer Experiment That Is China, And How It Might Just Improve The World
Monday, February 1, 2016 at 12:07PM
Thomas P.M. Barnett in China, Citation Post, environment, healthcare, resilience
IF NECESSITY IS THE MOTHER OF INVENTION, THEN TRAGEDY IS THE MOTHER OF RESILIENCE. Right now China, home to 19% of the world's population, is enduring a national tragedy when it comes to environmental pollution delivering carcinogens to the citizenry, who, in turn, now suffer extraordinary cancer rates. That's the bad news. The good new is that China, like so many economic "risers" before it, is certain to surmount its local pollution issues as its per-capita income reaches that level - seen in previously industrialized nations like the UK and the US - when the public begins to prefer a cleaner environment more than that next additional bit of income.

Environmntal_Kuznets_CurvePer the observed Kuznets Curve on environmental damage suffered by industrializing nations, we know that countries, when they traverse a certain per-capita income trajectory, begin to clean things up.  London's famous "fog" of the 19th century was really coal-burning-generated smog, and New York of a century ago was amazingly unhealthful due to local pollution.  But each metropolis, reflecting larger national trends, eventually cleaned themselves up. Better-off citizens simply began prioritizing that demand in political discourse, elections, candidates and the like. Didn't happen overnight, but like with everything witnessed in today's globalization era, we should expect it to happen at record speed with China.

(And yes, the environmental Kuznets Curve is subject to two key criticisms: 1) nations often clean-up by moving their dirtier industries to other nations (pollution haven effect); and 2) the notion applies well to local pollution, but not to global pollution of the sort represented by CO2 emissions. Of course, from my economic determinist perspective, these caveats only highlight the need to bring along - even faster - the less-developed parts of the global economy, so that they too reach proper national "incentivization" levels.)

But no matter how fast it happens, China's frightening cancer experiment is just beginning. Yes, we can cite the high smoking rates of the sort not seen in the U.S. since the 1940s-50s - a development that led to our own cancer-treatment boom in the 1960s-70s (when systematic work on virtually all of today's treatment protocols began).  But that's only responsible (it is estimated) for roughly one-quarter of China's current explosion of cancer cases. Another huge chunk is due to the population's unremitting exposure to carcinogens in their environment - the dark cost of the nation's rapid industrialization of the past several decades.

Now we get word of just how costly that trajectory, which lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty, is turning out to be in the realm of cancer.

From the Medical Daily website (along with the scary photo above, credited as bl  michael davis-burchat, CC by 2.0):

new report illuminates one aspect of this country’s current reality — the health of its citizens. Researchers estimate China endured 2.8 million cancer deaths during 2015 and 4.3 million new cancer cases, with lung cancer the most common of all.

“Cancer incidence and mortality have been increasing in China, making cancer the leading cause of death since 2010 and a major public health problem in the country,” wrote the researchers. Quality data from population-based registries has recently become available through the National Central Cancer Registry of China, giving researchers a better view of the country's health.

The key to the new understanding is meta-analysis of cancer registries around the country - in other words, Big Data to the rescue:

To penetrate the shadows and learn more about the current situation, a team of scientists from the American Cancer Society, University of Sydney, and National Cancer Center Beijing used mortality data compiled by 72 local cancer registries to estimate the numbers of cancer deaths in China in 2015.

Given the recent, rapid industrialization and the relative infancy of anti-smoking public campaigns in China, it's no surprise that the nation "outperforms" it global population share of 19% by accounting for 22% of new cancer diagnoses and a whopping 27% of global cancer deaths. But what really sticks out is the distribution of cases across organs:

Specifically, the four most common cancers diagnosed in China are lung, stomach, liver and esophageal cancer, representing 57 percent of all cancers diagnosed in the country. By comparison, these cancers account for only 18 percent of total incidence in the United States.

Have no doubt, Chinese are living longer and - in general - more healthy lives. As the study also notes, mortality rates have plummeted in the last decade alone - 21 percent for both males and females.  That's amazing.

But that also makes the spiking rise of invasive and fatal cancer cases all the prominent. People are living longer in China, but dying harder - and local pollution is the rising killer.

“Outdoor air pollution, considered to be among the worst in the world, indoor air pollution through heating and cooking using coal and other biomass fuels, and the contamination of soil and drinking water mean that the Chinese population is exposed to many environmental carcinogens,” wrote the authors.

Some efforts are being made to reduce the burden of environmental pollution in China, they say. Though the effects of these endeavors will not be felt immediately, the rates of cancer deaths could be reduced by increasing the effectiveness of care and treatment, particularly among the disadvantaged and those living in rural areas, the researchers conclude.

Having spent a lot of time in China over the past decade, I can attest to the scary nature of the air quality. Typically, I just start on antibiotics the minute my jet touches down, knowing that the expose will send my sinuses into acute infection - like clockwork. Frankly, it's why I turned down a full-time job offer last year from a Chinese enterprise: it wasn't just the personal health cost I feared, but what it would do to my kids once they made it over. It's when highly-skilled and globally mobile workers - both outside and inside China - start basing job decisions on local pollution that the political tipping point gets reached, simply because the profound economic costs begin to make themselves readily known.

China will process its peaking pollution by massing state resources and power to make it happen, and the government will do this - to a great extent - to avoid the public's political wrath.  The same will happen with China's burgeoning cancer treatment industry. Both efforts will leave China far more resilient on the far side of this development "hump," and the world will likely benefit greatly from the nation's great push on both subjects - just like it did before when Western economic giants went through similar growing pains.

Article originally appeared on Thomas P.M. Barnett (
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