We’ve been hearing for some time about the airborne transport of air pollutants from Asia — particularly fast-developing China — to the western United States. A new study reveals that the pollution, already shown to be arriving in sufficient quantities to undercut U.S. efforts to reduce air quality, is on the upswing.
Not only that, but the eastern United States’ airborne gunk is making its way to Asia. And apparently Asia is looking nervously over its shoulder at emissions coming from Europe.
Based on some 100,000 pollution measurements over a quarter century, the new study published Jan. 21 in the journal Nature specifically points to Asia’s contribution to ozone pollution affecting those of us living along the Left Coast and in the Rocky Mountain states.
Study co-author Dan Jaffe of the University of Washington-Bothell has been studying the bad Asian air for years, slowly building a case that it has effects right here in Rain City as well as across the West. I caught up with him this afternoon, and he explained the significance of the new research:
This is the first time anyone’s been able to quantitatively identify that the amount of ozone coming from Asia is increasing. We’ve seen ozone many, many times, but we’ve never had a long enough or complete enough record to measure an increase.
In earlier efforts, scientists looked for Asian ozone going up, but failed to pinpoint a statistically significant increase.
But China’s massive air pollution problems are no secret, and Jaffe acknowledged:
Given what’s happening in China, this is not a shocking result.
Still, if you want to solve a problem, you first have to document it.
One long-documented problem the new study brought to mind is PCBs in Puget Sound. We know PCBs are still used in Asia, and that Puget Sound has long been plagued by PCB contamination that started around the time of World War II. I also know that some scientists studying Puget Sound a few years ago concluded — based on some fairly back-of-the-envelope calculations, as I recall — that the contribution of airborne PCBs from Asia was probably not a big very factor as far as PCBs in Puget Sound are concerned. Keep working on digging out the stuff buried in the bottom of the Sound, they advised.
Now, PCBs are not something Jaffe’s studies have covered. But he does keep up on work in that area and he thinks concentrating on the high levels of PCBs in the sediments instead of small concentrations wafting over from Asia is a sound approach for the Sound.
I was alerted to the new study in a story by Les Blumenthal of McClatchy Newspapers. I also found scientist Kathy Law’s piece in Nature commenting on the new research to be worthwhile.
— Robert McClure