China may finally be taking air pollution seriously

The News TribuneFebruary 6, 2014 

A man wears a mask in Shanghai while walking on a hazy day in December 2013. Industrial pollution from China travels in large quantities across the Pacific Ocean to the United States, making environmental and health problems unexpected side effects of U.S. demand for cheap China-manufactured goods.


On many days in Chinese cities, air quality is so bad that only the brave and the foolish venture outside without a face mask.

Air pollution is blamed for more than a million premature deaths a year in China and for creating crop-damaging acid rain. It’s so bad that it discourages tourists from visiting and drives away some of the country’s best and brightest to study and work abroad.

That sounds awful, but should Americans care?

Those of us who live on the West Coast should care very much. A lot of Chinese pollution travels across the Pacific Ocean and can end up here within days. It’s a fiendish return on the coal we export to China – and the cheap goods manufactured there that U.S. consumers have come to expect.

On Mount Bachelor in Oregon, a monitoring site run by a University of Washington Bothell professor, Dan Jaffe, measures these pollutants – including sulphur, mercury, ozone, nitrogen oxides and black carbon. His researchers have determined that Chinese pollution is responsible for an increasing number of “ozone events,” days when there are higher levels of the gas. Ozone, which is linked to vehicle emissions, can damage respiratory systems. At particular risk are young children and people with existing lung conditions like asthma.

While state and federal environmental rules have had huge impacts on emissions generated by industries and vehicles on American soil, some of those air quality improvements could be endangered by pollution from China. Regions like the South Sound that are found out of compliance with federal air quality standards could find themselves facing penalties and regulations for pollution not entirely of their own making.

Recent actions create some reason to hope that China is getting serious about its air pollution problem. In September, the government announced a $280 billion plan to improve air quality. Strategies include less use of coal and banning high-emission vehicles. The most polluted area around Beijing has been ordered to cut fine particulates 25 percent by 2017.

In another move, since Jan. 1 the government has required thousands of factories to make public their air emissions – in real time. That’s not even required of U.S. industry.

In China, as in the United States, there’s pressure not to crack down too much on industry lest it affect jobs. But when people are protesting air pollution, when many are literally dying, and when agriculture and tourism are being hurt, the Chinese government feels compelled to act.

No one knows whether its actions will have significant effect, but they can’t hurt. In the meantime, research like that done by UW’s Jaffe is important in measuring pollution that is being imported into our region.

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