Fear the Airpocalypse
America Chokes on Asia’s Smog

The United States’ smoggy days are mostly behind it, and our air quality is only getting better as shale gas continues to displace sooty coal as our country’s primary source for power generation. But pollution doesn’t respect national borders, and new research suggests that America’s west coast is suffering from air pollution produced clear across the Pacific Ocean. NPR reports:

“Scientists found Asian air pollution contributed as much as 65 percent of an increase in Western ozone in recent years,” NPR’s Rob Schmitz reports from Shanghai. “China and India, where many consumer products are manufactured, are the worst offenders.”

The problem, scientists say, is that Asian countries’ emissions of nitrogen oxides — which sunlight then breaks down in reactions that produce ozone — have tripled since 1990. When those harmful gases circulate to North America, they offset gains in U.S. air quality that have come from cutting nitrogen oxide emissions by 50 percent.

This problem has been documented for several years, and it underlies just how serious Asia’s pollution problem really is. We can separate environmental problems into two general categories: local (smog, water pollution, soil pollution, etc.) and global (greenhouse gases). China and India’s struggles in dealing with these more localized pollution problems are well known at this point. Both Beijing and New Delhi are paying large economic and social costs for their rapid respective industrializations, and a recent study from the World Bank found that air pollution alone costs the global economy more than $5 trillion annually.

But smog can drift, and water pollution can flow downriver, and even a country like the United States—bound on both sides by vast oceans—can be forced to deal with problems created by reckless development halfway across the world.

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