Chemistry is central to keeping China clean


Hepeng Jia/ Beijing, China 

China has launched its first-ever National Environment and Health Action plan, which sees environmental chemistry playing a key role in monitoring the impact of the environment on human wellbeing. 

’If we are to determine the influence of various pollutants on human health, we need to more precisely screen polluting chemicals in the environment,’ said Zhang Pengyi, director of the Institute of Environmental Chemistry of Tsinghua University. 

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The action plan was jointly released by the Ministry of Health, the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) and 16 other government agencies on 21 November.  

Surveys on environmental factors that influence health should be completed by 2010. Nationwide surveillance networks to monitor environment and health factors will be established in the following five years. The plan also states that China will develop a legal system to cope with environment-related health problems. 

Wu Xiaoqing, deputy SEPA director, said at the launch of the agenda that China’s environment and health authorities have previously not worked together to form an effective system to manage environment and health policies, laws and surveillance.  

While administrative departments need to work more closely, researchers of different disciplines should also collaborate more. ’The most typical example is that environmental data have not been well used by health researchers,’ he told Chemistry World.

Chen Yongmei, a researcher with the Chinese Society for Environmental Sciences, points out that proving a causal relationship between environmental factors and health effects presents a major difficulty. ’In the current environmental studies and surveillance, we lack sufficient indices to judge the degree to which certain pollutants can be harmful to health,’ she said. 

It can be difficult to trace the source of pollutants in the environment if they have seen widespread use, added Zhang, while another challenge for Chinese environmental chemists is the lack of registration of potentially harmful chemicals.  

’Although dioxin, for example, has been banned for commercial use, we do not know how much of it has penetrated into the environment because of the lack of registration,’ Zhang said.  

Chen added that amidst the growing awareness of the environment’s impacts on health, Chinese environmental scientists also need to communicate effectively to the public. ’Some chemicals are only potentially harmful to health in certain conditions, but if this has not been clearly explained, the public will panic whenever 
they hear their names.’