100,000 People Die in China Every Year So You Can Buy Cheap Goods

There's a hidden cost to buying cheap goods — and it's human. Wang Zhao/AFP/Getty Images

There's a hidden cost to cheap goods that are manufactured overseas, and it's paid in pollution, cheap labor and, it turns out, actual lives.

According to a study published in Nature, Chinese-made goods bought in western Europe and the United States have killed more than 100,000 people in China in one year alone, a direct consequence of the health dangers of air pollution.

“When we see pictures of terrible smog in Beijing, we have a tendency to point fingers and say they should clean up their stuff,” said University of California, Irvine earth systems scientist and co-author of the study, Steven Davis, to the New Scientist. “But that’s a little unfair because when you and I go to Walmart and buy a lawn chair, it’s a few cents cheaper, and as a result, people are dying in China.”

The primary source of the problem is microscopic pollutant particles, which mainly derive from coal-fired power plants and manufacturing emissions. The study estimates that 22 percent of air-pollution-related premature deaths can be associated with goods and services produced in one country and consumed in another.

It gets worse when considered on a global scale. As many as 3.45 million global premature deaths can be associated with particles less than 2.5 millionths of a meter in diameter. And just because U.S. consumers are separated from China by the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean doesn't make them immune to the pollution. Atmospheric currents can move emissions from east Asia across the Pacific Ocean in just about six days. The particle concentration is not as high after traveling across the ocean, but it's still dangerous.

“That’s the penalty of living in a world that shares air,” said Davis in the New Scientist article.

Even short exposure to high concentrations of microscopic pollutant particles can lead to early death from heart disease, stroke and lung cancer. The 100,000 Chinese deaths might not show up on a price tag, but it's worth thinking about the real cost of saving a few dollars the next time you go shopping.

“On some level, the responsibility lies with us, because we’re consuming those goods,” said Jason West, an environmental engineer at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, in the New Scientist article. “These global effects are real and this helps us get a grasp on the magnitude of the influence trade has on air pollution related health.”

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  1. Zhang, Qiang, et al. “Transboundary Health Impacts of Transported Global Air Pollution and International Trade.” Nature, vol. 543, no. 7647, 2017, pp. 705–09., doi:10.1038/nature21712