The title of the 1979 movie "China Syndrome" has ever since been attached to a catastrophic nuclear reactor meltdown. But the name is better suited for what is evolving now in China: a new version of the China Syndrome — complete "environmental meltdown." China actually has decent environmental laws, but they are not enforced. Chinese industry and utilities are basically free to do as they please ?— reminiscent of what is being advocated now for our current economic woes. So how well is this laissez-faire brand of environmental protection working out in China?
Chinese authorities admit that 750,000 of their citizens die from air pollution and 60,000 from water pollution annually. Outside organizations think that is a gross underestimation. The Chinese Ministry of Health admits pollution has made cancer the leading cause of death in China, followed by respiratory and heart diseases, also related to air pollution. Only 1 percent of the country's 560 million city dwellers breathe air considered safe by the European Union. All of China's major cities are constantly blanketed by the same choking, toxic gray shroud, the "China Syndrome."
Chinese citizens are becoming increasingly aware of how this damages their health, longevity and livelihoods. In 2009 China had 90,000 incidents of riots or mass protests triggered by outrage over chronic or acute pollution. Some of these riots involved 15,000 people risking arrest, beatings and even their lives.
After a 2007 investigation, the New York Times wrote, "Environmental degradation is now so severe, with such stark domestic and international repercussions, that pollution poses not only a major long-term burden on the Chinese public, but also an acute political challenge to the ruling Communist Party."
Our State Department estimates that pollution costs China 7-10 percent of its GDP, negating almost all of its GDP growth. In other words, pollution causes economic disaster as well. Nonetheless, many Republicans seem all too comfortable bringing the China Syndrome to America. Actually some of it has already arrived. Satellite photos reveal an "Asian Brown Cloud," a massive plume of Asian industrial pollution and dust from the Gobi Desert constantly making its way across the Pacific Ocean. It ends up in the lungs of Americans, including Utahns. As much as 30 percent of the pollution over Los Angeles probably originates in Asia. In 2006, researchers concluded most of the particulate matter measured over Lake Tahoe came from China.
Freedom from government regulation has become the dominant theme within the Republican Party. Inexplicably, this year no freedom seems more important to them than freedom for corporations to add more pollution to our air and water, albeit using a more soothing name: deregulation. Eric Cantor announced that is the entire GOP job creation plan. Every Republican presidential candidate and virtually every Republican member of Congress is loudly demonizing the face of environmental regulation, the EPA.
Michelle Bachmann proudly wants to abolish the EPA altogether. Not to be out done, Rick Perry sounds like he wants to torture everyone who works there, then abolish it. Sadly, last week even President Obama seemed to join the chorus, ordering the EPA to abandon a court ordered tightening of smog standards that medical scientists concluded would save about 12,000 lives every year and would have added jobs to our anorexic economy, not subtracted them.
But most Americans aren't joining in the political pummeling of the EPA. Polls taken within the last six months show that people don't think their health and the environment must be sacrificed for economic recovery, they don't want regulations watered down, and they are even willing to pay more out of their pockets for cleaner energy.
With the China Syndrome, an immoral sacrifice of the health and lives of millions of innocent people in Asia, the only real winners are a few of the new "robber baron" industrialists in China. Adopting similar public policy in this country, behind a mirage of "job creation," is no less immoral, no more productive and no more defensible than it is in China. The cure for our economic free fall is not to allow environmental meltdown.
Brian Moench, MD, is the president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment and a member of Union of Concerned Scientists.
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