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Air Pollution Deaths and the Globalized, Outsourced Economy

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The World Health Organization released a report yesterday showing that 7 million people died in 2012 from air pollution. This was 1 out of every 8 global deaths and twice previous estimates. These deaths are highly concentrated in Asia and result from two sources. First, women are dying from indoor cooking stoves in nations like India. This killed 3.3 million people in southeast Asia alone. Second, air pollution in Chinese cities is killing people left and right. That led to 2.6 million deaths in southeast Asia. The first problem is certainly very real and there are a lot of experts and NGOs working on cooking stove issues. The second is more interesting because a good bit of this comes from the outsourcing of American industrialization. Of course, Chinese industrialization is quite complicated and results from many factors, the most important of which is the Chinese state’s desire for immediate modernization at all costs. But it’s not like American consumers have no culpability here.

Americans used to die from this pollution. In late October 1948, a weather inversion hit the town of Donora, Pennsylvania. A steel and zinc-producing town for U.S. Steel southwest of Pittsburgh, Donora sat in a valley where under certain weather conditions air would stagnate. As it did so, it mixed with pollutants from the smokestacks belching pollution into the atmosphere. Normally, the pollution was bad but the winds would move it out of the valley. During periods of air stagnation though, Donora’s environmental problems, already bad, became a poisonous soup. Nearly all vegetation within a half-mile of U.S. Steel’s Donora Zinc Works was dead even before the disaster struck. On October 27, air pollution and weather patterns became a deadly combination. A thick yellowish smog hung over the town as people breathed in poisonous gases such as nitrogen dioxide, sulfuric acid, and fluorine. The smoke lasted until November 2. Despite heroic efforts by local fire and police forces, as well as the town’s eight doctors who worked night and day, twenty people in Donora died and another 7000 became sick. Nearly 800 pets also died.

That doesn’t happen here anymore. Americans rallied to pass environmental legislation, including several successive Clean Air Acts, to force companies to clean up their operations. But the response of corporations was to move abroad in order to keep on polluting. NAFTA facilitated this. The increased air pollution companies could emit meant profit. It also meant over 36,000 children visiting Ciudad Juarez emergency rooms between 1997 and 2001 because of breathing problems. Mexican federal spending on environmental protection fell by half between 1994 and 1999 at the same time that American corporations polluted the nation like never before.

Eventually much of this production moved to China, whether directly outsourced or to be exported to the United States as the U.S. stopped producing much steel. In January 2014 alone, the United States imported 3.2 million tons of Chinese steel. American corporate interests do not own these Chinese steel companies, but they do own thousands of other heavily polluting factories in the country. Recreating pollution is why companies move from the U.S. to China. They want to avoid “environmental nannies” as companies have called Natural Resource Defense Council health director Linda Greer, who frequently writes about these issues. The Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs in Beijing, a leading Chinese environmental NGO, released a report in October 2012, detailing the massive pollution by apparel factories that contract with U.S. corporations like Disney. The report noted subcontractors for Ralph Lauren discharge wastewater filled with dyes and other pollutants into streams and do not use pollution reduction devices on coal boilers, thus releasing extra pollutants into the air. Chinese people are protesting the pollution but their government has little tolerance for these protests, which pleases foreign investors. A recent scientific estimate shows that in 2006, U.S. exports were responsible for 7.4 percent of Chinese sulfur dioxide, 5.7 percent of nitrogen oxide, and 4.6 percent of carbon monoxide. Earlier estimates suggested one million people die in China from air pollution each year, but we now see it is much higher. How many of these people fall thanks to outsourcing? It’s impossible to know, but the answer is some.

How many of those lives could be saved with better environmental standards on products imported to the United States? American companies may not be responsible for all or even most of the suffering of the Chinese working class from pollution, but they certainly contribute to it. Outsourcing production means that we as Americans look overseas and talk about Chinese air pollution, but we are completely unaware of our responsibility for at least part of that smog. In a globalized economy and integrated world, it’s dishonest to separate out responsibility based around what is convenient for us. We hear that ideas and capital and jobs flow around the world, but labor standards and environmental standards, well that’s just impossible. Not only is that an incorrect assertion–it is of course possible to set global standards at some level–but it also serves the interest of capital, as we see the pollution happening across the globe as something totally disconnected from our lives and something we can do nothing about it. This mentality generates profits for corporations.

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