The Made in China label is one of the most recognisable labels in the world today due to China’s rapidly developing, large manufacturing industry. As the largest exporter in the world, China does not only export goods but also air pollutants such as black carbon that travel across the Pacific Ocean, causing contaminant spikes on North America’s West coast during spring due to the powerful global winds know as “westerlies”.
A recent study by UC Irvine and other researchers published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences attempts to quantify how much of the pollution reaching the American West Coast is from the production in China of cell phones, televisions and other consumer items exported around the globe. The team carried out an analysis on US air quality and found that that production and export-related air pollution contributes, maximum on a daily basis, 12–24 perecent of sulphate pollution over the western United States. 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. They further elaborated that "Black carbon is a particular problem: Rain doesn’t easily wash it out of the atmosphere, so it persists across long distances. Like other air pollutants, it’s been linked to a litany of health problems, from increased asthma to cancer, emphysema, and heart and lung disease."
Air pollution is a serious problem in China, partly due to the coal mining industry. A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that "life expectancy for those living in the north [of China] was about 5.5 years shorter — an effect due entirely to differences in cardio-respiratory problems, which is exactly what you’d expect if pollution was the cause." According to the breakdown of the figures from Greenpeace UK, "the some 257,000 premature deaths – which theoretically could have been avoided if there was no air pollution - were calculated using modelling techniques based on the links between air pollution and risk of illness or death."
To visualise the seriousness of the problem, Greenpeace UK created an interactive map on their website which marked out the effect China's coal plant emissions on health using data collected in 2011. When you click onto the map, each bubble represents for a coal plant, of which China has more than 2,300 in operation. The size of the bubble relates to the health outcomes that - the analysis suggests - could have been caused by the chemicals and particles emitted as a result of coal combustion in 2011. Zoom in to see the locations of the individual plants and click on a bubble to get information on the tonnes per annum of SO2, NOx and PM2.5 emitted.
Hopefully, this type of research study and tool will be a good channel to disseminate the fact that China’s air pollution problem has reached an alarming level. As stated by Michael Richard of Treehugger, these kinds of publications will be useful to negotiate clean-air treaties and help Chinese citizens breathe easier.