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China Pollution Reaches American Skies


By Terence Chea
CBS News
July 29, 2006


Mount Tamalpais State Park, Calif. -- On a mountaintop overlooking the Pacific
Ocean, Steven Cliff collects evidence of an industrial revolution taking place
thousands of miles away.

The tiny, airborne particles Cliff gathers at an air-monitoring station just
north of San Francisco drifted over the ocean from coal- fired power plants,
smelters, dust storms and diesel trucks in China and other Asian countries.

Researchers say the environmental impact of China's breakneck economic growth is
being felt well beyond its borders. They worry that as China consumes more
fossil fuels to feed its energy-hungry economy, the U.S. could see a sharp
increase in trans-Pacific pollution that could affect human health, worsen air
quality and alter climate patterns.

"We're going to see increased particulate pollution from the expansion of China
for the foreseeable future," said Cliff, a research engineer at the University
of California, Davis.

He has monitoring stations on Mount Tamalpais, Donner Summit near Lake Tahoe,
and Mount Lassen in far Northern California. Those sites see little pollution
from local sources, and the composition of the dust particles matches that of
the Gobi Desert and other Asian sites, Cliff said.

About a third of the Asian pollution is dust, which is increasing due to drought
and deforestation, Cliff said. The rest is composed of sulfur, soot and trace
metals from the burning of coal, diesel and other fossil fuels.

Cliff is studying whether transported particulate matter could affect climate by
trapping heat, reflecting light or changing rainfall patterns.

Most air pollution in U.S. cities is generated locally, but that could change if
citizens in China, India and other developing nations adopt American-style
consumption patterns, researchers say.

"If they started driving cars and using electricity at the rate in the developed
world, the amount of pollution they generate will increase many, many times,"
said Tony Van Curen, a UC Davis researcher who works with Cliff.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that on certain days nearly
25 percent of the particulate matter in the skies above Los Angeles can be
traced to China. Some experts predict China could one day account for a third of
all California's air pollution.

Dan Jaffe, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Washington, said he has
detected ozone, carbon monoxide, mercury and particulate matter from Asia at
monitoring sites on Mount Bachelor in Oregon and Cheeka Peak in Washington state.

"There is some amount of the pollution in the air we breathe coming from halfway
around the world," Jaffe said. "There ultimately is no 'away.' There is no place
where you can put away your pollution anymore."

China's environmental problems are severe and getting worse. Nearly 30 years of
relentless industrial expansion has fouled the country's rivers, lakes, forests,
farmland and skies.

The World Bank estimates that 16 of the world's 20 most polluted cities are in
China, and air pollution is blamed for about 400,000 premature deaths there each year.

Coal-fired power plants supply two-thirds of China's energy and are its biggest
source of air pollution. Already the world's largest producer and consumer of
coal, China on average builds a new coal- fired power plant every week.
Meanwhile, car ownership is soaring as the country's economy grows about 10
percent a year, contributing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases linked to
global warming.

If current trends continue, China will surpass the U.S. as the world's largest
emitter of greenhouse gases in the next decade, said Barbara Finamore, who heads
the Natural Resources Defense Council's China Clean Energy program, which is
helping the country boost its energy efficiency.

"China's staggering economic growth is an environmental time bomb that, unless
defused, threatens to convulse the entire planet regardless of progress in all
other nations," Finamore said.

Even Chinese environmental officials warn that pollution levels could quadruple
over the next 15 years if the country doesn't curb energy use and emissions.
Beijing plans to spend $162 billion on environmental cleanup over the next five
years, but the scale of the country's pollution problems is immense.

"When you look at China's population growth and industrial growth, it's hard to
imagine how air quality could improve in the near future," said Ruby Leung, a
researcher at the Energy Department's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in
Richland, Wash., which collaborates with Chinese government scientists on
atmospheric research.

Earlier this year, Leung and her colleagues published a study that found
particulate pollution has darkened China's skies over the past 50 years by
absorbing and deflecting the sun's rays.

China's pollution also regularly dirties the air in neighboring South Korea and
Japan, but until recently researchers didn't think it had much effect on North America.

U.S. scientists have recently found that Asian pollution is consistently
transported across the Pacific on air currents. It can take anywhere from five
days to two weeks for particles to cross the ocean.

 

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