Saturday, April 26, 2014

Chinese Smog in LA ?

Pollution doesn’t pay attention to national boundaries, so there’s nothing stopping China’s smog from drifting back across the Pacific Ocean to plague Los Angeles. And that’s just what’s happening, according to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Researchers from China, Britain, and the U.S. estimate that emissions from Chinese factories add up to an extra day of unhealthy air quality per year in the Hollywood Hills.

Over the past 30 years, many international companies have moved manufacturing operations—and much of the pollution that accompanies them—to East Asia. But that doesn’t mean factories far away are operating cleanly. “We’ve outsourced our manufacturing and much of our pollution,” study co-author and University of California at Irvine earth-systems scientist Steve Davis said in a statement. “But some of it is blowing back across the Pacific to haunt us.”

As much as a fourth of the sulfate pollution in the western U.S. derives from Chinese factories. But as Davis points out, it’s not entirely fair to wag fingers at China alone—after all, it’s Western consumers that fuel demand for China’s polluting export industries. “This paper shows that there may be plenty of blame to go around,” he says.
The U.S. is hardly alone in facing a China smog problem. Japan and South Korea regularly experience bouts of westerly winds bringing unwelcome particulate matter from their near neighbor. Korean media has even given a nickname to toxic clouds from China: “air raids.”

(Bloomberg Businessweek)

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Air Pollution: More Deadly than you think.

A growing body of scientific evidence suggests that breathing bad air can heighten the probability of suicide. The latest evidence comes from pollution-plagued Salt Lake County.
Saying “it’s so smoggy I could kill myself” may seem as flippant as uttering “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.”

But it’s not.

Four years ago, Asian researchers reported links between air pollution and suicide rates in South Korea; and between air pollution, asthma, and suicides in Taiwan. Now, University of Utah scientists say they have uncovered similar links in pollution-prone Salt Lake County.

Delegates who have gathered in Los Angeles for the American Association of Suicidology’s annual get-together will hear this evening about the unpublished research, which compared the timing of 1,500 suicides in the Beehive State with air quality data.

Suicide can be difficult to talk about, but it’s America’s 10th leading cause of death. It’s the eighth-leading cause in Utah, home to some of the nation’s smoggiest cities. Earlier this year, the pollution problem prompted a 5,000-person protest outside the state’s capitol building. (Fun fact: The biggest air polluter in Salt Lake Valley is a copper mine operated by Rio Tinto—and an executive of that mine chairs Utah’s air quality board.)

“We found an association between air pollution exposure and suicide risk,” says Amanda Bakian, an assistant professor in the university’s psychiatry department who was involved with the research. “Our study wasn’t designed to test for causality. It was designed to assess whether or not there is a correlation.”
Bakian and her colleagues found that the odds of committing suicide in the county spiked 20 percent following three days of high nitrogen dioxide pollution—which is produced when fossil fuels are burned and after fertilizer is applied to fields.

They also found that Utahans were five percent more likely to kill themselves following three days of breathing in air laced with high levels of fine particulate matter, also known as soot.

“To our knowledge, this is the first U.S. based study to identify a link between transient air pollution exposure and suicide risk,” the scientists wrote in an abstract for the conference. “A similar relationship may exist in U.S. populations but has yet to be examined.”

The timing of some of the county’s suicide spikes was puzzling. Despite the wintertime arrival of the worst annual bouts of air pollution in Utah’s montane valleys, including Salt Lake Valley, suicides were more likely to follow several days of bad air in the spring.

“We were surprised to find that the association between air pollution and suicide risk was strongest in the spring,” Bakian says. “This might have resulted from an interaction between air pollution and other spring time risk factors for suicide, such as mood disorders, pollen, and increasing durations of sunlight.”

The United Nations recently concluded that air pollution has become the world’s largest single environmental health risk, killing an estimated seven million people in 2012. Findings by Bakian’s team, and by the researchers who studied links between pollution and suicide in Taiwan and South Korea, suggest that the world’s filthy air could be even more lethal than that.
John Upton is a freelance journalist based in India. He has written recently for Vice, Slate, Nautilus, Modern Farmer, and Audubon magazine. 

Sunday, April 06, 2014

BEIJING — Over the past few years, trips back to my home village, Huaihua Di, on the Lanxi River in Hunan Province, have been clouded by news of deaths — deaths of people I knew well. Some were still young, only in their 30s or 40s. When I returned to the village early last year, two people had just died, and a few others were dying.

My father conducted an informal survey last year of deaths in our village, which has about 1,000 people, to learn why they died and the ages of the deceased. After visiting every household over the course of two weeks, he and two village elders came up with these numbers: Over 10 years, there were 86 cases of cancer. Of these, 65 resulted in death; the rest are terminally ill. Most of their cancers are of the digestive system. In addition, there were 261 cases of snail fever, a parasitic disease, that led to two deaths.

The Lanxi is lined with factories, from mineral processing plants to cement and chemical manufacturers. For years, industrial and agricultural waste has been dumped into the water untreated. I have learned that the grim situation along our river is far from uncommon in China.
The nation has more than 200 “cancer villages,” small towns like mine blanketed with factories where cancer rates have risen far above the national average. (Some researchers say there are more than 400 such villages.) Last year the Ministry of Environmental Protection acknowledged the problem of “cancer villages” for the first time, but this is of little comfort to my parents’ neighbors and millions like them around the country.

More than 50 percent of China’s rivers have disappeared altogether, and few of the surviving waterways are not completely polluted. Some 280 million Chinese people drink unsafe water, according to the Ministry of Environmental Protection. Nearly half of the country’s rivers and lakes carry water that is unfit even for human contact.

And China’s cancer mortality rate has soared, climbing 80 percent in the last 30 years. About 3.5 million people are diagnosed with cancer each year, 2.5 million of whom die. Rural residents are more likely than urban residents to die of stomach and intestinal cancers, presumably because of polluted water. State media reported on one government inquiry that found 110 million people across the country reside less than a mile from a hazardous industrial site.

I have lived away from my hometown for years and only return for brief visits, usually during the Chinese New Year. I am becoming more and more a stranger there. And yet my journey as a fiction writer started from this humble place. It has been a literary gold mine for me, giving me endless inspiration. The once sweet and sparkling water of the Lanxi frequently appears in my work.
People used to bathe in the river, wash their clothes beside it, and cook with water from it. People would celebrate the dragon-boat festival and the lantern festival on its banks. The generations who’ve lived by the Lanxi have all experienced their own heartaches and moments of happiness, yet in the past, no matter how poor our village was, people were healthy and the river was pristine.

Now there is not a single lotus leaf left in our village. Most of the ponds have been filled in to build houses or given over to farmland. Buildings sprout up next to malodorous ditches; trash is scattered everywhere. The remaining ponds have shrunk to puddles of black water that attract swarms of flies. Swine fever broke out in the village in 2010, killing several thousand pigs. For a time, the Lanxi was covered with sun-bleached pig carcasses.

The Lanxi was dammed up years ago. All along this section, factories discharge tons of untreated industrial waste into the water every day. Animal waste from hundreds of livestock and fish farms is also discarded in the river.

It is too much for the Lanxi to bear. After years of constant degradation, the river has lost its spirit. It has become a lifeless toxic expanse that most people try to avoid.
Its water is no longer suitable for fishing, irrigation or swimming. One villager who took a dip in it emerged with itchy red pimples all over his body.

As the river became unfit to drink, people began to dig wells. Most distressing to me is that test results show the ground water is also contaminated: Levels of ammonia, iron, manganese and zinc significantly exceed levels safe for drinking. Even so, people have been consuming the water for years: They have had no choice. A few well-off families began buying bottled water, which is produced mainly for city dwellers. This sounds like a sick joke.

Most of the village’s young people have left for the city to make a living. For them, the fate of the Lanxi is no longer a pressing concern. The elderly residents who remain are too weak to make their voices heard. The future of the handful of younger people who have yet to leave is under threat.

I posted a message about the cancer problem in Huaihua Di on Weibo, China’s popular microblogging platform, hoping to alert the authorities. The message went viral. Journalists went to my village to investigate and confirmed my findings. The government also sent medical professionals to investigate. Some villagers opposed the publicity, fearing their children would not be able to find spouses. At the same time, villagers who had lost loved ones pleaded with the journalists, hoping the government would do something. The villagers are still waiting for the situation to change — or improve at all.

My hometown’s terminal illness and the death of Lanxi River have been heartbreaking for me.
I know the illness does not just affect my village and my river. The entire country is sick, and cancer has spread to every organ of this nation. In our society, profit and G.D.P. count more than anything else. A glittering facade is the new face of China. Behind it, well-off people emigrate, people in power send their families to countries with clean water, while they themselves consume quality food and clean water through the networks that serve the privileged. Yet many ordinary people still refuse to wake up, as if they were busy digging at the soil beneath their own feet while standing on a precipice.

After my visit home last year, I started to paint. I try to capture from memory the pristine river and my beautiful village. Now that the river has died, I hope it finds its paradise in my paintings. But what about the people who lost their clean water? Where is their paradise?

(Translated for the NYT April 6 2014)