US Suffers from China's Pollution

Posted on September 09, 2013
Posted By: Scott Shugarts

What do downtown Los Angeles and a 9,000 foot summit in the Oregon Cascades have in common? Air pollution. While observers can point to the vast population and its accompanying pollution in southern California, one must look a bit further away to explain the causes of pollution on remote and pristine mountaintops. According to Dan Jaffe, an atmospheric chemist at the University of Washington-Bothell who runs the Mount Bachelor observatory in the Cascades, we need to look across the Pacific Ocean to China.

Anyone who has looked at flight plans while flying across the US may notice that flights from west to east are generally faster than flights from east to west. This is because prevailing winds in the northern hemisphere generally travel from west to east. Unlike California to New York air travel though, not all tailwinds bring benefits.

Jaffe notes that ozone measurements on top of Mount Bachelor have reached 50 parts-per-billion (ppb), most attributable to pollution blown across the ocean from China. EPA standards for safe levels will be between 60 and 70 ppb in the next few years, leaving almost no allowance for any pollution - natural or manmade - to emanate from the US.

Mountaintops are not the only places that pollution from China has been found. A 2010 study found that _ of the ground-level ozone found in Sacramento Valley in California came from Asia. But pollution from Asia can reach much farther than the west coast. In 2001, dust carried from a storm in China that dropped on the US led to health advisories as far east as Atlanta, Georgia.

But what are the real consequences for Americans? The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that pollution carried from Asia is responsible for hundreds of deaths annually in the US. While this pales in comparison to the significantly reduced life expectancy in China of up to 5 years, measures to protect the United States are still warranted.

For one, plans to expand US and Canadian coal exports to China are being questioned in light of the fact that, while only China reaps the energy, the malignant environmental effects are mutually shared. There have been some signs of China being open to working with the rest of the world on environmental issues, as indicated in a statement issued during a US-China summit in June of this year.

Jaffe does note that China is making significant progress confronting its air quality problem; and certainly he believes the US still has its own part to play in reducing air pollution. However, it is increasingly evident that the futures of China and the US are inexorably bound. When it comes to pollution, it is indeed a small world, after all.

Authored By:
Scott Shugarts earned his B.A. in History from SUNY at Buffalo in 2001. He was worked in education, finance, and joined Energy Curtailment Specialists in 2012 as an Administrative Sales Assistant and Research Specialist. Scott has a long history of interest in public policy and has contributed to local blogs for years. In his personal time Scott enjoys travelling throughout North America, as well as chasing around his 3 sons.

Other Posts by: Scott Shugarts

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September, 09 2013

Ferdinand E. Banks says

This is a very valuable article if it is correct. This business of the Intercontinental transportation of pollution is something that I have wondered/thought about for a long time, but have been too lazy to do the research that I need to do, passing the issue off as trivial. Thank you author.

September, 13 2013

Fred Linn says

During World War 2, Japan used the high altitude jet stream to launch bombs on balloons toward the US. This is the same air system that is bringing pollution from China to US and Canada.

September, 17 2013

Joseph Somsel says

During the last big Chinese air pollution crisis, I called around to the Bay Area Air Resource Board and they had no clue as to when and how much the Chinese junk would affect our air quality around San Francisco Bay.

But they had called a "spare the air day" on their own, with no consideration of the Chinese contribution, making it a crime to start a fire in one's home fireplace.

Calling the EPA was just as useless - they sent me around in circles and it took two weeks to get them to admit they didn't monitor it nor could they make predictions of cross-border, trans-oceanic pollutant flows.

It appears that our government is more concerned about stepping on the rights of American citizens than protecting their health.

September, 17 2013

Michael Draper says

Appreciate your comment about US and Canadian coal exports. Not to be interpreted as an argument for isolationist solutions, but we need to get our own house in order.

Carbon taxation will require an enormous amount of political capital. Perhaps more than the current, entrenched congress would be willing to expend.

You can roll out all the new age enviro-vehicles you want but US consumers seem to still demand a product that is both space and energy gluttonous.

We also need to learn how to play better with others re: international climate change initiatives.

Walk to work, pack your lunch, invest in renewable energy resources and encourage an enlightened utility sector to build a smarter grid. All worthwhile and necessary tasks required to transition from 19th Century technologies to more environmentally balanced offerings.

Raise the bar. Don't point fingers.

September, 18 2013

Scott Shugarts says

Thank you for the conversation, everyone.

Ferdinand, you use an interesting word there: trivial. Unfortunately many anti-regulation advocates will point to information like this to proclaim that our attempts to reduce pollution will be trivial when viewed against the pollution from the rest of the world. I find that akin to saying that just because my company won't buy me a treadmill with a desktop attachment to walk on while I work, I shouldn't bother to diet at all.

I think Michael is right: we need to get our own house in order. Not only does every bit of carbon reduction help, but what moral high ground can we have to tell other countries to lower their pollution when we do nothing ourselves? America is supposed to be a global leader, not an ineffectual, ambivalent global apologist.

And yes, part of fixing our pollution problem is knowing the genesis of said problem. My article links to studies by the EPA and NOAA. So foreign pollution is apparently on someone's radar (pun completely intended) but the issue of foreign pollution seems at best to be on the back burner. Since California is logically the most affected state, perhaps it's an issue that the 55 Californian congressional delegates and presidential electors should bring up.

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