Western demand for goods from China is killing 100,000 a year

Made in China, but at what cost?

Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Chinese-made goods bought in western Europe and the US have, in effect, killed over 100,000 people in China in one year alone – as a result of the air pollution associated with their manufacture.

Microscopic pollutant particles in the air cause millions of deaths worldwide each year. People in countries like China and India, where much of the world’s goods are manufactured and services are outsourced to, are shouldering the biggest burden.

“When we see pictures of terrible smog in Beijing, we have a tendency to point fingers and say they should clean up their stuff,” says Steven Davis, an earth systems scientist at the University of California, Irvine. “But that’s a little unfair because when you and I go to Walmart and buy a lawn chair, it’s a few cents cheaper, and as a result people are dying in China.”

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Davis is co-author on a study that finds that 22 per cent of air-pollution-related premature deaths in 2007 were associated with goods and services produced in one country and consumed in another.

The authors assessed 3.45 million global premature deaths associated with particles less than 2.5 millionths of a metre in diameter. Particulate matter that small is mostly produced by burning coal, with transport fumes also a source, and exposure can lead to early death from heart disease, stroke and lung cancer.

They found that in 2007, economic consumption in western Europe and the US was linked to more than 108,000 premature deaths in China.

“On some level, the responsibility lies with us, because we’re consuming those goods,” says Jason West, an environmental engineer at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. “These global effects are real and this helps us get a grasp on the magnitude of the influence trade has on air pollution related health.”

Trade winds

This fine particulate pollution is also spreading around the globe. Modelling by Davis and his colleagues linked air pollution produced in China in 2007 with more than 64,000 premature deaths elsewhere, including more than 3000 in western Europe and the US.

Emissions from east Asia can make their way across the Pacific Ocean on atmospheric currents in about six weeks, Davis says. “That’s the penalty of living in a world that shares air,” he says.

Neighbouring countries like Japan and South Korea are also seeing higher rates of premature deaths due to air pollution, even though they aren’t the biggest consumers or producers of the goods associated with the fine particulate matter.

“What should an American consumer think? We’re aware that a lot of what we buy is produced elsewhere, but this puts numbers to how the pollution that creates is harming people,” West says.

Davis says that if President Trump succeeds in implementing his election promises – bringing manufacturing jobs back to the US and eliminating US Environmental Protection Agency oversight of clean air – it could potentially lead to more premature deaths in the US.

“If we successfully onshore production and roll back clean air regulations, we could expect air pollution deaths in America to go up,” he says.

Journal reference: Nature, DOI: 10.1038/nature21712

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