Asian Pollution Threatens States’ Clean Air Goals

Published October 1, 2004

Scientists from Harvard University and six countries have discovered that Asian pollution plumes have crossed the Pacific Ocean and blanket the United States all the way to the East Coast. The discovery has raised a host of new questions regarding the feasibility of strict new pollution standards in the United States.

The discovery of the plumes marked the first time Asian pollution has been discovered on the U.S. East Coast. The dark, sooty plumes contain smog-forming particulate matter and ozone pollutants that are strictly regulated by the federal government.

Asian Soot May Render Regional Goals Unfeasible

Metropolitan regions that fail to meet federal air quality standards regarding soot and ozone are forced to enact expensive pollution control programs that some observers say will make little difference when the source of the pollution is Asia.

“We have to be concerned whether the cost of continuing to ratchet up emission controls is not going to be offset by growing pollution coming to us from Asia,” said Harvard University’s Daniel J. Jacob, deputy mission scientist for the pollution study, as reported in the August 9 Boston Globe. “At some point, it may be cheaper to sell pollution control equipment to China.

“Right now,” Jacob added, “there’s a lot of interest in the community about this influence of Asian pollution and whether it can compromise our ability to achieve regional air quality objectives.”

Surprising Extent of Asian Pollution

The six-week study was conducted from July 5 through the middle of August. Scientists participating in the study tracked numerous air masses as they traveled across the United States and crossed the Atlantic Ocean into Europe. Detailed analysis of the composition of the pollution particles enables scientists to pinpoint their place of origin.

Although scientists had documented occasional incidents in which Asian pollution had reached the continental United States, and although computer models had predicted such pollution could reach the U.S. East Coast, scientists were surprised by both the magnitude of the pollution reaching the East Coast as well as the season in which the pollution traveled so far.

“We knew the transport from Asia was efficient in the spring, but we didn’t know it was so prevalent in the summer,” study leader Robert Talbot, director of the University of New Hampshire’s Atmospheric Investigation, Regional Modeling, Analysis, and Prediction program, told the Globe. “I think what you’re going to see in five to 10 years’ time, when you get a better handle on the long-range transport, is that pollution is traveling from continent to continent and there may need to be some new agreements put into place.”

Talbot added, “I don’t think we had the knowledge that it was quite so extensive and quite so long-range. Papers are starting to appear saying it may be difficult for several Pacific cities to meet pollution standards because of Asia.”

The research “is critical to setting emissions standards,” said Jacob, as reported in the August 5 Christian Science Monitor. Otherwise, he said, “you could find that your efforts are being defeated by ozone pollution” from somewhere else.

Said Jacob on the September 7 Jim Lehrer NewsHour, “What you’re going to see … is the transport basically around the world of this gas, to the point where emissions from Asia affect North America, emissions from North America affect Europe, emissions from Europe affect Asia, and you have this dance of pollution around and around the world. We’re all breathing each others’ exhaust.”

The Christian Science Monitor story noted, “Researchers have found, for example, that air pollution from Asia can further undermine air quality in spots such as Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks in California–‘pristine’ spots already affected by the Golden State’s own air-quality problems.”

Added Jacob on NewsHour, “We have right now on the books from EPA a regulation that says that our national parks have to get natural visibility conditions by 2064. We’ll never get back to natural visibility conditions because of pollution from Asia. In other words, either you engage with the Chinese in reducing their emissions, or you say, ‘Well, natural visibility isn’t achievable.'”

New England Too Quick to Blame Midwest

By documenting the amount of Asian pollution making its way to the United States, the Harvard University study and similar ongoing research calls into question claims by Eastern states that pollution emanating from Midwestern U.S. industry is causing a significant portion of East Coast pollution.

According to the Globe, “[Talbot] believes that the results of a parallel New England Air Quality Study may surprise this region, which often claims the mantle of the ‘tailpipe of the nation’ and is too quick to blame other regions for creating the smog that drifts in on prevailing winds and gets stuck here.

“I think there’s quite a bit of pollution generated within the region that we’re not really recognizing,” said Talbot. “There could be some eye-opening results in that respect.”

James A. Hoare ([email protected]) is managing attorney at the Syracuse, New York office of McGivney, Kluger & Gannon.