At least 350,000 people in China die each year from air pollution, according to China's former health minister Chen Zhu.
Zhu cautioned that the annual mortality rate could actually be as high as 500,000—slightly less than the American Cancer Society's estimate for U.S. cancer deaths in 2013, which is 580,350.
However, according to The New York Times, those numbers could be even higher. The Times reported in April that air pollution contributed to 1.2 million premature deaths in China in 2010. A study published in December by British Medical Journal found that Chinese men and women younger than 65 lost more years of life due to air pollutants compared to those older than 65.
Until recently, mentioning deaths related to pollution was strictly censured. The Chinese government was accused of understating urban pollution levels, which made obtaining accurate pollution data problematic.
On Tuesday, China set new targets in its 31 provinces to reduce air pollution, specifically PM 2.5 particles, which measure fewer than 2.5 micrometers in diameter. These small particles are especially hazardous as they can easily settle in the lungs and cause illnesses.
Under new regulations, Shanghai is expected to cut air pollutants by 20 percent each year. Beijing will have to cut its pollution by 25 percent annually. Provinces that do not reach their goals will be "named and shamed," China Daily reports.
By most accounts, 2013 was China's worst polluted year on record, partially due to a spike in coal production during the last 12 months. Voice of America reports that more than 100 million tons of new coal production capacity was approved in China last year, six times more than a year earlier. Beijing aims to increase coal production capacity to 860 million tons by 2015, surpassing the entire annual output of India.
Despite the pollution, China is experiencing a running boom, but poor air quality threatens the sport's long-term growth. Lamine Diack, the president of the International Association of Athletics Federations, the world governing body for road racing and track and field, called upon Chinese authorities to curb air pollution Monday.
"Bad weather is a big problem for Chinese city managers to solve," Diack told Inside the Games. "Marathon is innocent and, as an aerobic exercise, it has high demand for outdoor air conditions."
In the last 24 hours, Beijing's air quality has gone from "good" to "moderate" to "unhealthy." The United States Embassy in Beijing measure the levels hourly, and posts the data to Twitter under @BeijingAir.