U.S. Smog: Made in Chinese Factories, Funded by American Consumers

According to a new study, air pollution generated by China's export industry is blowing across the Pacific Ocean and contributing to smog in the Western U.S.

Smog blurries the view of downtown Los Angeles. (Photo: Bally Scanlon / Getty Images)

Jan 22, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Salvatore Cardoni holds a political science degree from the George Washington University. He's written about all things environment since 2007.

Proving that no good deed goes unpunished, U.S. consumers whose thirst for electronic goods produced cheaply in Chinese factories has helped drive that country’s economic boom are breathing in the polluted by-product of that outsourcing.

Nitrogen oxide and carbon monoxide blown across the Pacific Ocean from China’s export-dependent factories can account for up to 25 percent of the acid-rain-causing sulfate concentrations that cities on the U.S. West Coast experience on any given day, a study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found.

Because of this pollution, Los Angeles has, since 2006, surpassed EPA ozone standards at least one extra day per year, according to the study.

Still, before any Left Coasters think about wagging a finger at China, it’s important to remember that the amount of air pollution in the Western U.S. caused by these Chinese export factories is relatively small compared with the amount produced by U.S. sources, such as the transportation industry. "We shouldn’t take an alarmist perspective," coauthor Steven Davis, a scientist at the University of California, Irvine, told the Los Angeles Times. "Los Angeles air quality is not going to be [as bad as] it was in the '70s or '80s because of this."

The study also found that export manufacturing contributed to 36 percent of China’s sulfur dioxide emissions, 22 percent of its carbon monoxide, and 17 percent of its black carbon—a component of soot that has been linked to global warming, cancer, and asthma.

While China is making strides to combat its own dirty air—last year, three Chinese cities banned construction of new coal plants—dangerously high levels of air pollution remain common. This is especially true during colder months, when more coal is burned to fuel heating systems after temperatures drop. (In the American West, it’s the opposite—the warm, sunny days of summer bring increased smog. But with the current drought, the air has been dangerous recently even in winter.)

In December, air quality in the eastern city of Nanjing was recorded at 354 on the Air Official Index. (U.S. experts consider anything above 150 to be unhealthy and anything from 301 to 500 to be hazardous.) During the same week, thick smog forced Shanghai officials to cancel flights and recommend that children and the elderly stay indoors.

"When you buy a product at Walmart, it has to be manufactured somewhere," said coauthor Davis. "The product doesn't contain the pollution, but creating it caused the pollution."

Because of this, he said, the world needs to understand that reducing pollution, which does not respect transnational boundaries, is in everyone’s shared interest.

“Given the complaints about how Chinese pollution is corrupting other countries’ air," Davis said, "this paper shows that there may be plenty of blame to go around."