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Air pollution from abroad could impact domestic air quality, study says

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Harmful air pollutants can travel across oceans and continents and have a negative impact on air quality far from their original sources, according to a new report.

Harmful air pollutants can travel across oceans and continents and have a negative impact on air quality far from their original sources, according to a new report.

A study by the National Research Council is urging nations to consider the worldwide effect of pollution control. The problem? As industrialized countries move to reduce emissions, developing nations are increasing theirs.

So while California might have stringent emissions laws, the pollution wafting over the Pacific from Asia may continue to decrease quality of life. (The same goes for Europe, affected by U.S. emissions.)

"Air pollution does not recognize national borders; the atmosphere connects distant regions of our planet," said Charles Kolb, chair of the committee that wrote the report and president and chief executive officer of Aerodyne Research Inc., in a statement. "Emissions within any one country can affect human and ecosystem health in countries far downwind.

While it is difficult to quantify these influences, in some cases the impacts are significant from regulatory and public health perspectives."

The report examines four kinds of air pollutants: ozone; particulate matter (dust, sulfates, soot); mercury; and persistent organic pollutants such as DDT.

The committee found evidence, confirmed with satellite observation, that these pollutants can be transported across the Northern Hemisphere.

In other words, if your country is downwind of a developing nation, watch out.

In one example, a study found that a polluted airmass from East Asia took about eight days before being detected at Mt. Bachelor Observatory in central Oregon in the U.S.

The health impacts of the traveling pollution vary by type:

  • Ozone and particulate matter cause respiratory problems by direct inhalation.
  • Mercury and persistent organic pollutants can gradually accumulate on land and in watersheds, creating an increase in human exposure through the food chain.

In East Asia, for example, man-made emissions are expected to rise in coming decades. The report recommends increasingly stringent pollution control efforts and international cooperation in developing and deploying pollution control technology.

But developing nations aren't necessarily on board, since industrial development is a boon for their economies. The thinking: if industrialized nations achieved their world standing through industrial development, why should we pay the price once they wise up?

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Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure