Cheap goods from China come at added cost: air pollution in U.S.

Graphic courtesy of Jintai Lin

A study from Chinese and UC Irvine scientists indicates that air pollution drifts to the west coast of the U.S. from China manufacturing plants pumping out goods exported to the U.S.


A Chinese family wearing face masks to protect against air pollution walk along a street in Beijing on March 27, 2013. China will more than double the number of cities covered by air quality monitoring, as part of efforts to tackle heavy smog that has sparked huge public anger. Swathes of acrid haze have repeatedly shrouded large parts of the country in recent months, provoking outrage among Internet users and unusually outspoken calls for action in state-run media.

Photo by Matt Carman via Flickr Creative Commons

A haze of smog adds to the sunset as seen from downtown Los Angeles.

It's not just big cities in China suffering the effects of air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels. A new study shows that the lower-priced goods we buy from China comes at the expense of our air quality. 

The study from scientists in China and UC Irvine,  analyzed how much of the air pollution drifting from China to the U.S. West Coast is from manufacturing of consumer goods - stuff that also comes across the Pacific Ocean. 

The study indicates Los Angeles gets at least one extra year a day of bad smog that exceeds federal ozone limits because of nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide emitted by Chinese factories making goods for export. 

"We outsource production of these goods and services to China, it leads to air pollution and then that pollution blows back on us," said Steven J. Davis, assistant professor at UC Irvine and study co-author.   

All the contaminants tracked in the study are key ingredients in unhealthy smog and soot.

Davis said consumers aren't the bad guys.

"We're not saying with this study that the consumer, end consumer, should be responsible for all this pollution, but obviously they have some role in it," said Davis.

Davis said the air pollution analysis could inform any future treaty negotiations between the U.S. and China.  
"Somehow get them to clean up their air and thus help our own air quality," said Davis. "The study makes it clear that all of these pollutants that are coming out of China aren't, strictly speaking, to do with what's being consumed in China."

He said it's the "dirty, heavy industries" in China, - think smokestacks - putting the emissions into the atmosphere. 

"If we made these goods at home, in the U.S., rather than importing them from China, we tried to figure out what the difference in air quality would be," said Davis. "Where manufacturing tends to happen in the United States is on the east coast. So, by outsourcing this pollution to China, we've essentially cleaned up the air quality on the East Coast but made it worse on the West Coast."

Davis said the impact of the air pollution drifting to the U.S. from China are short-term, rather than the emissions which remain in the atmosphere much longer that contribute to global warming.

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