Irvine, Calif., March 29, 2017 – The latest products may bring joy to people around the globe, but academic researchers this week are highlighting the heightened health risks experienced by people in regions far downwind of the factories that produce these goods and on the other side of the world from where they’re consumed. In a study published in the journal Nature, scientists quantify and map the shift of environmental and health burdens brought on by globalization and international trade.
“The way manufacturing and commerce are structured in the world today means that air pollution mortality is being felt disproportionately by people living in or near producing regions, often far from where goods are consumed,” said paper co-author Steven Davis, associate professor of Earth system science at the University of California, Irvine.
Focusing on the year 2007, the researchers found that of the 3.45 million premature deaths caused by fine-particulate-matter air pollution, about 12 percent were related to pollutants emitted in a different region of the world, and 22 percent were associated with goods produced in one region for consumption in another.
For example, nearly 31,000 deaths in Japan and South Korea were linked to emissions from China, and just over 47,000 deaths in Eastern Europe were related to pollution from factories in Western Europe. The study also found that 2,300 deaths in Western Europe were attributable to pollution transported through the atmosphere from the United States.
“Previous studies proved that air pollution can travel great distances and cause harm far from emitting factories,” Davis said. “Our research shows that trade extends the distance between cause and effect by separating consumers in one region and people who suffer adverse health impacts, who are often on the other side of the world.”
The study’s authors note that China’s exports cause the greatest number of premature deaths because of the high population density of that country and its neighbors, the quantity of its emissions, and its focus on manufacturing for export. And they estimate that in 2007 about 11 percent of Chinese deaths due to air pollution were tied to goods consumed in the United States and Western Europe, which import the most Chinese products.
“It costs less to manufacture goods in places like China and Southeast Asia, mostly because those places have cheaper labor than the West,” Davis said. “But they also tend to have less stringent environmental protections and denser populations, so consumer savings, corporate profits and economic development based on trade are costing the lives of people who have to breathe polluted air.”
The research was supported by China’s National Natural Science Foundation and National Basic Research Program, as well as by NASA.
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