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Science | Chinese industry sends more than cheap consumer products to the United States

Issue: "Getting paid not aid," Feb. 22, 2014

That squirt gun or lamp marked “Made in China” may have been cheap, but the price includes something you wouldn’t have noticed unless you were looking for it: West Coast pollution. A January study concluded Los Angeles experiences an additional day per year of illegally high smog levels because of Chinese factories making products bound for America. Industrial pollutants, including carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides, travel over the Pacific Ocean within days, riding rapid winds known as westerlies, and settle in valleys in California and elsewhere.

The researchers, working from the United States, China, and England, estimated that China-made goods contribute between 12 and 24 percent of the sulfate pollution—a contributor to acid rain—in the western United States. Black carbon, another hazard in the mix, is resistant to being washed from the air by rain and has been linked to cancer, asthma, and heart disease. Coal-burning factories in China are responsible for much of the pollution.

On balance, though, outsourcing manufacturing to China has probably resulted in a net health benefit for Americans, said the researchers, who reported their calculations in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. While air quality has worsened in the U.S. West, it has improved in more densely populated eastern states. The picture is less rosy for the Chinese, who, thanks to lax environmental regulations, sometimes have to wear face masks outdoors because of hazardous clouds of industrial smog.

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Cutting costs

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States that have quit paying for routine newborn circumcision may be losing money in the long run. University of Florida doctors wrote in The American Surgeon journal last year that Florida has seen a surge in circumcision procedures among boys between the ages of 1 and 5. The surge followed the state’s 2001 decision to stop covering neonatal circumcision under Medicaid. For boys, doctors sometimes recommend circumcision as a hygienic treatment for recurring infections.

In changing its Medicaid policy, Florida seems to have been responding to the American Academy of Pediatrics, which in 1999 stated it did not recommend routine circumcision for newborns. In 2012 the organization reversed course, admitting “the health benefits of newborn male circumcision outweigh the risks”—but not before a dozen states dropped newborn coverage, according to The Wall Street Journal.

The University of Florida doctors said publicly funded newborn circumcisions cost the state only a few hundred dollars, but among older boys, the risk of complications increases and the price jumps to more than $6,000. In the end, the total cost of Medicaid-covered circumcisions in Florida doubled between 2003 and 2008 as a result of dropping newborn coverage, they said. —D.J.D.

Plague by pollen?

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A virus that normally infects pollen may be contributing to the widespread death of honeybees. Scientists reported in the online journal mBio in January they had found tobacco ringspot virus infecting weakened bee colonies susceptible to so-called colony collapse disorder. The mysterious disorder—thought to result from a combination of pathogens, malnutrition, and pesticides—is partly to blame for the deaths of roughly one in three U.S. hives each winter since 2006. Honeybees are responsible for pollinating dozens of crops, a service valued at $15 billion per year. —D.J.D.

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is a reporter for WORLD who covers science, technology, and other topics in the Midwest from his home base in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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