An investigation has been launched this Monday after a report came in suggesting hundreds of children developed severe health problems as well as cancer while attending a language school near a heavily polluted industrial site in the city of Changzhou in the southern province of Jiangsu, China. Students had been suspicious about an ‘unusual smell’ coming from the plants nearby, says Xinhua, the state news agency.

According to a CCTV report, 493 out of 641 students have chronic coughs, headaches and blood abnormalities as well as lymphoma and leukemia. The report also found high levels of contaminated soil and water at the industrial site near the school.

China has been in the news regarding its environmental crisis for quite some time now. Reports have showed how the quality of air has gone from good to unhealthy in just a matter of seven years. The pollution, which stands at ‘red alert’ with a 253 reading on the air quality index (AQI) displays the level of air pollution present. This has also led to schools being shut down previously in 2015. According to the US government, anything ranging from 301-500 is considered hazardous and above 200, very unhealthy. Even at the Beijing Olympics, marathon runners were seen wearing masks and sponges to finish the race.

Figures published in the Nature Climate Change and Earth Science System Data journals show that in 2014, China was the largest CO2 emitter with up to 9.7 billion tons being released. This was followed by US emitting 5.6 billion tons, EU with 3.4 billion tons and India with 2.6 billion tons. Though they have plans to reduce these numbers, overall emissions are expected to rise till 2030 before a decline can take place.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Xingtai is regarded as the worst Chinese city in terms of daily average pollution followed by Shijiaxhuang, Boading and Handan. As far as US is concerned, Bakersfield, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Washington were rated as the worst US cities for the highest average pollution.

The main source of air pollution is the burning of coal on a large scale which is detrimental to China’s growth though it brings in 80% of China’s electricity and 70% of the total energy being produced as well as causing 400,000 premature deaths a year. The US has also experienced similar circumstances, particularly in Pittsburgh, but ‘through tough regulations combined with large collapse of heavy industry’, Allen Robinson from Carnegie Mellon University says it has become much cleaner.

A study conducted by researchers from Peking University, Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Tsinghua University in Beijing concluded that long term exposure to air pollution in China is expected to cut life expectancy at birth by three years. Other health issues have also been reported due to the pollution levels of Beijing and much of China. Respiratory diseases make up to 15% of the deaths caused in China. In small towns, such as Gaojiagao, air pollution from coal has led to severe birth defects such as cleft palates, extra fingers and toes, congenital heart disease and mental retardation.

Like other nations though, China is not one to sit down and just watch things go by. The Chinese are serious about tackling this problem and cannot ignore the environmental crisis anymore. Serious efforts are being taken, with Beijing even planning to shut down coal plants inside the city by the year 2017. Barbara Finamore, Director at the Natural Resources Defence Council, says, “The good news is China is not hiding from this. They are working hard to improve the ability to monitor coal use and carbon pollution, so that is where these figures are coming from.”