Tuesday, April 16, 2013

China Poisons the World

Many countries pursue environmentally harmful paths, but none has been accused of pollution on a scale that threatens the entire planet—at least until now. Thomas N. Thompson directs that accusation towards China in an article in Foreign Affairs: Choking on China: The Superpower That Is Poisoning the World.

China is known to be the largest emitter of greenhouse gases and thus the largest contributor to global warming. While this contributes to a worldwide problem, Thompson’s focus is on more immediate threats to health and prosperity.

"The dangers of China’s environmental degradation go well beyond the country’s borders, as pollution threatens global health more than ever. Chinese leaders have argued that their country has the right to pollute, claiming that, as a developing nation, it cannot sacrifice economic growth for the sake of the environment. In reality, however, China is holding the rest of the world hostage -- and undermining its own prosperity."

The danger pollution poses for China’s city dwellers has been widely reported, with most focus on high counts of particulates, the so-called PM2.5s. Particles with diameters less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter are small enough to damage lung tissue and enter the blood stream.

"According to the World Bank, only one percent of China’s 560 million urban residents breathe air considered safe by EU standards. Beijing’s levels of PM2.5s -- particles that are smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter and can penetrate the gas exchange regions of the lungs -- are the worst in the world. Beijing’s 2012 March average reading was 469 micrograms of such particles per cubic meter, which compares abysmally with Los Angeles’ highest 2012 reading of 43 micrograms per cubic meter."

The main source of these particulates is assumed to be the ubiquitous burning of coal. Does this particulate creation constitute a worldwide threat?

"In 2006, researchers at the University of California–Davis discovered that almost all of the harmful particulates over Lake Tahoe originated in China. The environmental experts Juli Kim and Jennifer Turner note in their essay "China’s Filthiest Export" that "by the time it reaches the U.S., mercury transforms into a reactive gaseous material that dissolves easily in the wet climates of the Pacific Northwest." At least 20 percent of the mercury entering the Willamette River in Oregon most likely comes from China. Black carbon soot from China also threatens to block sunlight, lower crop yields, heat the atmosphere, and destabilize weather throughout the Pacific Rim."

While not very many Californians are yet worried about pollution wafting over, China’s Asian neighbors are quite concerned. An article in the Washington Post by Michiyo Nakamoto provides background on the response by Japan.

"The new provisional guidelines, compiled by the environment ministry, recommend that people stay indoors if the average amount of air pollutant, PM 2.5, is projected to exceed 70 micrograms per cubic meter – or twice the ministry’s maximum permissible level of 35 micrograms a day. Beijing’s pollution regularly exceeds 10 times that level...."

"Since April 2012, levels over 70 micrograms per cubic meter have been recorded at six monitoring stations in Japan."

"Levels of PM 2.5 are being monitored at more than 500 stations across Japan but the government aims to increase that to 1,300."

Thompson indicates that the pollution being produced by China is imposed on other countries in multiple ways.

"Carbon dioxide emissions from cars in China are also growing exponentially, replacing coal-fired power plants as the major source of pollution in major Chinese cities. Deutsche Bank estimates that the number of passenger cars in China will reach 400 million by 2030, up from today’s 90 million. And the sulfur levels produced by diesel trucks in China are at least 23 times worse than those in the United States. Acid rain, caused by these emissions, has damaged a third of China’s limited cropland, in addition to forests and watersheds on the Korean Peninsula and in Japan. This pollution reaches the United States as well, sometimes at levels prohibited by the U.S. Clean Water Act."

China’s polluted rivers produce a regional problem.

"China has also completely botched its waste-removal efforts. Eighty percent of the East China Sea, one of the world’s largest fisheries, is now unsuitable for fishing, according to Elizabeth C. Economy, a China and environmental expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. Most Chinese coastal cities pump at least half of their waste directly into the ocean, which causes red tides and coastal fish die-offs. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the country is now the largest polluter of the Pacific Ocean."

Thompson also seems to suggest that China might also be considered a potential exporter of epidemics.

"Most recently, the country has been shaken by a mysterious virus, H7N9, which has already killed six people and has spurred health authorities to order the slaughter of thousands of pigeons, chickens, and ducks thought to carry it. In the United States, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention has begun work on an H7N9 vaccine."

This is a curious thought. While not generally considered a pollutant, a virus can be considered a form of poison. Is there something unique about China that might make it a likely breeding ground for dangerous viruses? An article by Florence Williams in the New York Review of Books provides some insight. It is titled How Animals May Cause the Next Big One. Williams is reviewing a book by David Quammen: Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic.

Many recent threatening illnesses have been derived from infections that have moved from animals to humans. The spread of the SARS virus is perhaps the most intensely studied.

"Many of us will remember the virus SARS as a scary bug that flamed out quickly. But SARS is worth a long look for what it almost was. Quammen guides us back, step by unnerving step, to the time before eight thousand people were infected and 774 died. A seventy-eight-year-old Canadian grandmother delivered the virus to Toronto from Hong Kong in February 2003. Within weeks, it had arrived in the Philippines, Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand, and Taiwan."

"He describes how determined scientists eventually traced the SARS virus all the way back to Guangdong province....It turns out that Guangdong is ‘a province of ravenous, unsqueamish carnivores’ whose appetites fuel the biggest and most diverse live-animal markets in the world. Eventually, the culpable coronavirus was found in a civet cat, a mammal in the mongoose family, bound for a kitchen pot. More sleuthing showed that civets weren’t SARS’s main animal host. The civet had caught it from a horseshoe bat."

"How did the bat and the civet connect with each other? The gruesome live markets of southern China are an enterprising virus’s dream come true: such close quarters and all those stacked cages in a region where increasingly adventurous tastes demand a supply of exotic animals, including horseshoe bats."

Globalization entails more than the import and export of physical goods and the international exchange of financial instruments. As Thompson details, it involves the exchange of all the byproducts of human existence, including the noxious, the poisonous and the infectious.

1 comment:

  1. I think China Foreign Policy has result into more dangerous relationship with the other countries. Now China is being strongest economy growth over development on mankind resource.


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