That's Life

It was a shock to learn that the life expectancy of Beijing, China's residents (pegged at 81) exceeds that of Washington D.C. inhabitants by several years.

Having some familiarity with both cities, I found it unfathomable that Beijing, with its pervasive thick smog was a healthier place than our nation's capital. Washington, after all, benefits from the absence of pollutant-spewing heavy industry in its vicinity. Such a configuration gives its air quality a leg up on that of most other cities.

Anti-regulatory conservative circles in this country seemed not to be at all distressed about the Chinese life expectancy anomaly. In fact, a conservative pundit named Steve Milloy gleefully seized upon the Washington life expectancy comparison. In a Washington Times op-ed, he trumpeted the contrast as evidence that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was overregulating air pollution (to the detriment of the economy).

Conservative bombast notwithstanding, there had to be a catch to what appears to be a statistical epidemiological fluke. After all, the air in Beijing is so polluted that American diplomats assigned to the city receive hardship compensation. Face mask filters are commonplace among Beijing pedestrians. By comparison, Washington's air quality is pristine, despite the metropolitan area's dense traffic congestion.

One might question the Beijing life expectancy number since it is the product of Chinese statisticians. But let's assume the figure is accurate. Here is the catch. Their number is misleading when you take into account the health-adjusted life expectancy (HALE), a measure developed by the United Nations World Health Organization experts.

HALE is the average number of years you can expect your good health to last. Needless to say, Beijing's HALE terminates at a much earlier average age than does Washington's. Beijing's residents might live a year or two longer than their Washington counterparts, but are likely to spend their last two decades in misery from poor health. Washington's HALE, by contrast is quite close to its traditional life expectancy age.

Because of the prevalence of cigarette use in Beijing, paired with the city's severe air pollution, it is no surprise that cancer incidence is soaring. The trend further depresses the city's HALE reading.

The benefit of Beijing's purported life expectancy advantage would thus seem illusory. Even were its residents to live slightly longer on average than the good people of Washington, the extra time might be more trouble than it was worth.

That is something for any conservative critic to consider before touting Beijing's longer life expectancy as repudiation of EPA's aggressive regulation of air pollution.