High Consumption, Trade Shift Harmful Effects of Pollution

Industrial air pollution causes nearly 3.5 million deaths a year, and international trade is shifting some of the harmful effects from consuming nations to producing nations, according to a study in the journal Nature.  

The authors say high consumption in the United States and Western Europe harms health in manufacturing countries such as China, and the pattern is continuing among developing nations in Asia.

“Take an example of a toy,” says Steve Davis, an Earth system scientist with the University of California, Irvine, and one of the report’s authors.  He explains that toys sold in America are most often made in China, displacing the emissions that would otherwise be released in the United States.  

“We’re effectively outsourcing the pollution that comes from the manufacture of that product,” he said.

750,000 premature deaths

Worldwide, the scientists estimate air pollution produced by exported goods and services caused more than 750,000 premature deaths in the baseline year of the study, 2007.

The report by Davis and his colleagues at Beijing’s Tsinghua University and other institutions found the cross-border effects of trade-related pollution is greater than the cross-boundary impact of industrial pollution caused by weather patterns.

Particulate matter from China was linked to 65,000 premature deaths outside of China, largely in Japan and the Korean peninsula, and including 3,100 deaths in the United States and Western Europe.  But U.S. and European consumption of goods produced in China was linked to nearly 110,000 premature deaths in China.

The researchers say that as China becomes a consuming society, its manufacturing is shifting, but the pattern is similar, as production and pollution are “outsourced by China into other up-and-coming industrialized countries like Cambodia, Vietnam, India,” said Davis.

Those countries are bearing the health costs.

The study examined 13 regions of the world and Davis said researchers were surprised levels of harm from emissions that were displaced from one country to another by outsourcing.

Trump order criticized

Davis notes that China’s industrial cities are plagued with pollution, and the country is working to clean up its air.  Yet as China expands its use of “scrubbers” that remove fine particulate matter from industrial emissions, environmentalist are accusing President Donald Trump of reversing the U.S. commitment to clean air.  On March 28, Trump signed a sweeping executive order to increase America’s energy independence and boost American jobs by reducing the federal government’s role in controlling emissions.

“There’s a concern that in the pursuit of economic gains, we’re maybe willing to now sacrifice our environmental quality,” Davis said, noting the United States has long “pointed a finger at China” for its emissions.

The study’s authors say environmental pollution caused by manufacturing, and by worldwide trade, requires a global response that balances the need for clean air and economic growth.

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