In recent years it’s come to light that, despite China’s best efforts to the contrary, they have a massive pollution problem. As China finds themselves trying to quickly and cheaply produce goods that meet the consumer demands of the majority of the world, they’ve also found themselves polluting the atmosphere on an unprecedented scale.
While the world is crying out for China to lower their emissions, many aren’t prepared for the lifestyle changes that would be required if the world’s major manufacturing hub decided to greatly lower its output. In the meantime, the Chinese people suffer the consequences, and as the pollution starts to spread around the globe we may all eventually feel the effects.
10. Poor Air Quality Is Creating A Tremendous Death Toll
The air pollution problem often keeps many people indoors, and forces them to wear masks to keep out toxic fumes even on days where total avoidance of the outside isn’t advised. This problem is giving China a black eye on the national stage. Even after the Beijing Olympics, when the problem became more obvious, the true extent of pollution was swept under the rug. China has never offered journalists free reign to poke around, and has long denied any major problems caused by the air pollution.
However, a joint study involving the Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning and the World Health Organization found that somewhere between 350,000 to 500,000 Chinese people are “prematurely” dying from lung cancer due to pollution. Unfortunately, there are people who try to hand wave these numbers away. China’s government has tried to keep journalists from even talking about the issue, and they’ve done their best to keep the numbers out of international reports whenever possible. While some would suggest that all the smoking in China is the main cause, the study makes it clear that the number of people dying from lung cancer have continued to rise even as the number of smokers has declined.
9. They Are Burning Petcoke As Fuel
The United States likes to feel that they’re a much cleaner country than China, and that they’re doing more to deal with the crisis of pollution and renewable energy. However, the situation is more complicated than it seems. The United States and other countries are happy to buy products made using Chinese industry while claiming to take the high road themselves. The United States has put its foot down on certain fuels such as petroleum coke (petcoke). This fossil fuel is a byproduct of the oil refining process and is much, much dirtier than burning actual coal. While America don’t use the fuel, the US exports it to China so America can make some money off this byproduct instead of just letting the dangerous pollutant “go to waste.”
Every year, the amount of petcoke exported to China grows, because it’s an incredibly cheap fuel and China is dealing with the industrial demands of much of the modern world. While it’s cheap, it is hardly sustainable. With carbon emissions already out of control, using a fossil fuel that’s dirtier than coal is going to make an environmental crisis approach even faster. Of course, the rest of the world is partly to blame for selling the stuff in the first place. Sometimes it’s better to think of protecting the world from catastrophe than it is to squeeze every last possible cent of profit out of your waste.
8. Record Algae Growth
While algae blooms aren’t necessarily dangerous to humans, they’re usually a bad sign for the local ecosystem. Large blooms of algae have been surfacing every year in the Yellow Sea near the Qingdao Province, and the problem seems to be worsening. These huge piles of algae sitting on top of the water create an enormous mess, and in 2013 the local government was tasked with trying to clean up a bloom that was larger than 11,000 square miles.
These algae blooms greatly affect the local marine life, which often simply can’t survive the conditions they’re forced to deal with. The algae tends to block the sun’s rays, and can also greatly change the chemical balance of the water. To make matters worse, the algae can start to cause problems to humans when it decomposes and sends toxic fumes into the atmosphere. When the Olympics were hosted in China, the government had to spend millions and enlist the aid of 10,000 people to clean the algae up enough to allow the games to continue. The damage from that year alone was estimated to cost local seafood farmers roughly 100 million dollars. Part of the problem may be seaweed farmers, who are scraping waste into the water that later turns into algae blooms when the conditions are right. Of course, many experts feel that if industrial pollution wasn’t so bad those conditions wouldn’t be there.
7. They’re Approaching A Water Crisis
When you think of a country with a serious water crisis, China isn’t what comes to mind. But China is approaching a crisis, even though they would appear to have plenty of water to go around. To begin with, many industrial plants are located near water sources and dump their waste directly into the water, with very little recycling or treatment. Oftentimes sewage isn’t treated properly or at all, and ends up in the same sources of water intended for industry, drinking and bathing. If that wasn’t enough, since the 1960s, 10,000 bodies have been found in water sources.
Apart from pollution, China is also destroying some of their water sources. Due to industry using water without sustainable practices, many of China’s rivers are drying up. Many different ruined rivers and lakes will affect other water sources and make the crisis worse. On top of all that, China has an infrastructure problem when it comes to getting water where it needs to be. Most of China’s people and the agriculture that keeps them fed are located in the north, but the large majority of the country’s natural water is still located in the south. And even if you can get water, you may not want to drink it. Some experts believe that half the drinking water in major cities is unsafe to consume, and groundwater supplies are in a similar state of pollution.
6. They’re Starting To Experience Conditions Similar To A Nuclear Winter
A nuclear winter is a theoretical scenario that would occur in the aftermath of multiple nuclear bomb detonations. Apart from the dangers of the radiation itself, the ash that accumulates in the air would block the sun’s rays for a period that may last years. This would cause the planet to cool, and would greatly impede photosynthesis. It would be almost impossible to grow crops.
Aside from the radiation, this may soon be a reality in parts of China. As the country’s smog problem worsens, and the government becomes less able to sweep it under the rug, more Chinese scientists are delving into the miasma, and it’s not good news. One scientist concluded that the smog in some areas is already bad enough that it could be severely impeding photosynthesis. She believes that if the problem isn’t dealt with soon, it could spread to much of the country and put agriculture across China at serious risk.
5. Improperly Designed Garbage Incinerators Are Polluting The Atmosphere
China is struggling to contain the insane amounts of waste the country produces. Landfills are quickly overfilling, leaving them with nothing to do but simply destroy the garbage if they can. In many situations, this has led to a strategy of garbage incineration, with the fumes vented straight into the atmosphere. While this probably doesn’t sound like a great idea even in the best of situations, there are some incinerator plants in China that are having a serious environmental impact. Regulations aren’t well designed and there are a plethora of incinerator facilities that aren’t even close to standard, belching nasty smoke into the air with mercury and every other poison you could imagine. The horrible toxic fumes that spew forth have caused protests by everyone near them, and they’re an obvious threat to everyone’s health for miles.
4. It’s Become The Largest Dumping Ground For E-Waste
E-waste is an increasingly vexing problem for the world. When old electronics are tossed out they often aren’t properly recycled because it’s too time consuming, unsafe or expensive. In many cases, a venue that recycles old cell phones and computers may just take all that junk and send it to another country to pick over as they please. This is technically illegal, but there’s little deterrent. Using both the guise of donations and straight up smuggling, China has becoming the leading importer of e-waste to the point that 70% of the world’s e-waste is ending up there.
One town called Guiyu has become a hot zone for the stuff, and many entrepreneurs have risen up around mining old electronic garbage for valuable metals and other useful scrap. Unfortunately, this is terrible for their health and the environment. The process often involves burning plastic or using hydrochloric acid, neither of which is good for the user or the atmosphere. To make matters worse, this pollution has also affected the town’s water supply and rice crops. While the local government is trying to stop the flood of e-waste into the town, they face resistance from some residents because it’s the only way they know how to make a living.
3. Pollutants Are Making The Food Supply Unsafe
It stands to reason that if China’s air and water isn’t doing well, their soil probably isn’t faring much better. The problem with the soil may actually be more serious than any others. While many farmers are worried about the constant pollution levels they’re exposed to, most of the country is worried about the safety of their food supply — a supply they’re increasingly unable to trust.
The soil problem has been one of the most carefully guarded secrets in China. In fact, a few years ago the Chinese government conducted a study of the soil in order to assess environmental concerns. The results have never been released, which led to speculation that they’re worse than anyone could have imagined. To give you some idea, a group of Chinese officials found levels of cadmium beyond what’s recommended as safe in 155 samples of rice. One official commented that eight million acres of Chinese farmland was so poisoned with heavy metal contamination that it should no longer be used to grow crops. The worst part is that it’s almost impossible for Chinese consumers to know whether or not their food is contaminated.
2. Cancer Villages
Since the late 1990s, international activists and groups in China have been working on the problem of cancer villages. A cancer village is a small town of 100 or so residents that’s extremely close to industrial plants. These plants are constantly producing some of the nastiest pollutants on earth. People from the villages describe it as a nightmare, with chemically tainted water that can’t be purified and clouds of toxic ash floating through the air.
The Chinese government doesn’t want to address or acknowledge the issue, but like the smog the problem has become bad enough that no amount of covering up can hide it. Unfortunately, these villages are unlikely to go away anytime soon. As it turns out, the richer citizens of China don’t like pollution when it affects them, so they’ve been pressuring the government to move industrial plants. The government obliges and moves them near poor villages that lacks the political influence to do anything about it.
1. It Affects The Entire World
While it’s important for China to help its own country, the problem affects more than just China. The massive amount of pollution is starting to affect the rest of the world, and the results aren’t pretty. Scientists at Texas A&M University ran climate simulations both with and without China’s current air pollution and found troubling results. According to their simulations, cyclones in the Pacific Ocean are being strengthened by the pollution levels, and there’s an increase in ocean storms in general. If that wasn’t bad enough, tracing the pollutants led to the conclusion that some of it’s reaching the western United States, and much of the pollution levels in those states could be blamed on China.
As the study points out, this is massively ironic because the United States — and other developed countries — rely on China for cheap consumer goods. While many countries have outlawed practices that are bad for the environment, they turn around and buy massive amounts of goods from countries that continue to poison the environment. Countries like China fill a void by allowing us to get things for cheap while feeling like we’re taking the high road by enacting tougher pollution laws at home. These countries’ economies quickly become based on manufacturing, and the cycle becomes hard to break. While China may need to change, it’s a problem of more than just their making. If we want China to stop polluting, the rest of the world needs to find a more environmentally sustainable way to produce the goods that drive our economies.