China's heavy metals pollution falls on U.S. soil

Friday, March 14, 2014 by: David Gutierrez, staff writer
Tags: heavy metal pollution, China, U.S. soil

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(NaturalNews) Air pollution from China's coal-fired power plants regularly crosses the Pacific Ocean to contaminate the air, soil and water of the United States, studies have shown.

Appropriately, a significant proportion of this pollution is generated by industries that produce products for export to the West - often the same industries that have recently outsourced their production to Asia.

"Outsourcing production to China does not always relieve consumers in the United States - or for that matter many countries in the Northern Hemisphere - from the environmental impacts of air pollution," wrote the authors of a study recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study, conducted by nine researchers from three separate countries, examines the environmental impacts of a globalized economy. It is the first to measure the direct effects of China's export-driven economy on air quality in the United States.

"We're focusing on the trade impact," said lead author Jintai Lin, of Peking University. "Trade changes the location of production and thus affects emissions."

The researchers used a modeling system called GEOS-Chem to track the way that the global winds known as Westerlies carry air pollutants from China across the Pacific Ocean. According to a press release from the University of California-Irvine, these pollutants can cross the entire ocean in the course of days, producing "dangerous spikes in contaminants" in the western United States, especially during the spring.

"Dust, ozone and carbon can accumulate in valleys and basins in California and other Western states," the press release said.

Wide range of pollutants

A wide variety of air pollutants successfully make the long trek across the Pacific, the researchers found. Of particular concern is black carbon, which can cross especially long distances and has been linked to asthma, emphysema, heart and lung disease, and cancer.

The researchers found that, in 2006, Chinese manufacturing for export to the United States led to a 2 percent increase in sulfate concentrations in the western United States, as well as an increase in levels of ozone and carbon monoxide.

"Los Angeles experiences at least one extra day a year of smog that exceeds federal ozone limits because of nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide emitted by Chinese factories making goods for export," the UC Irvine press release said.

The study suggests that outsourcing U.S. production to China has mostly shifted the air pollution burden of those industries from the eastern states to the western ones.

Mercury contaminates soil, water

And it's not just the air that ends up contaminated from China's enormous number of coal plants. Coal combustion is the world's second-largest source of mercury contamination, just barely surpassing small-scale gold mining. And although mercury eventually settles out of the air, it can remain airborne long enough to cross the Pacific Ocean and contaminate wilderness, farmland and urban areas across the western United States.

Another study, conducted by researchers from the University of Michigan and published by the journal Nature Geoscience in August, found that coal plants in China and India are also a major source of mercury contamination in Pacific Ocean fish.

"This study reinforces the links between mercury emitted from Asian countries and the fish that we catch off Hawaii and consume in this country," study lead author Joel Blum said.

"The implications are that if we're going to effectively reduce the mercury concentrations in open-ocean fish, we're going to have to reduce global emissions of mercury, including emissions from places like China and India. Cleaning up our own shorelines is not going to be enough. This is a global atmospheric problem."

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