By Cole Hill ( | First Posted: Apr 03, 2013 01:32 PM EDT

If unabated, urban air pollution will become the No. 1 environmental cause of death in the world by 2050. (Photo : Reuters)

Forget trying to find clean drinking water - people in China are struggling to merely breathe. Outdoor air pollution was linked to more than 1.2 million premature deaths in the country in 2010 alone, according to a newly released study.

Speaking about air pollution recently in Beijing, Robert O'Keefe of the Health Effects Institute in Boston explained how he and other researchers took a closer look at a December report analyzing worldwide health issues released by British medical journal Lancet to come their shocking conclusion. The wide-ranging Global Burden of Disease study showed that of the 3.2 million international deaths due to air pollution in 2010, China contributed about 40 percent. "Ambient particulate matter pollution" was the fourth leading cause of death in China after other factors like certain dietary risks, high blood pressure, and smoking, the New York Times noted.

"This is the highest toll in the world and it really reflects the very high levels of air pollution that exist in China today," said O'Keefe to NPR.

Some of the country's residents report that air quality is so poor in their communities that most people wear masks when they venture outside, and many say they won't let their children play outdoors. 

"When you get off the airplane, if you were to travel to Beijing, you would immediately feel your eyes stinging and your throat rasping," Barbara Finamore, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's China program based in Beijing, told NPR.

While air pollution continues to escalate the health crisis in China, some government officials apparently view reports such as the one delivered by O'Keefe as "politically threatening."

"Chinese officials cut out sections of a 2007 report called 'Cost of Pollution in China' that discussed premature deaths. The report's authors had concluded that 350,000 to 400,000 people die prematurely in China each year because of outdoor air pollution," The Times reported.

Air pollution has become a steadily growing concern over the last decade in China. Air pollution's snowballed at such an alarming rate that the north of the country reportedly hit "record levels" in January, with several official Chinese publications breaking government-mandated silence on the issue and running front-page articles.

If unabated, urban air pollution will progress at such a steady rate that it will become the No. 1 environmental cause of death in the world by 2050, beating out dirty water and poor sanitation, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

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