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Dearry Explores Impact of Global Economy on Health

By Eddy Ball
December 2008

Picture of Dearry
At the APHA meeting, the Environment Section presented its Distinguished Service Award to Dearry in recognition of his service to the section and organization, including the Environment Section chair and APHA governing council. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

On October 28, NIEHS Associate Director for Environmental Public Health Allen Dearry, Ph.D., offered public health specialists a compelling argument for instituting reforms related to the global economy as an effective intervention to impact climate change and health. Dearry’s venue was the American Public Health Association (APHA) Annual Meeting in San Diego, where he presented research findings in a symposium titled “Trade and Transportation: Impact on Environmental Public Health.”

In his talk, Dearry eschewed the popular icons of global warming — coal-fired power plants, fume-spewing school buses and vehicle-choked interstates — to turn the spotlight on the less publicized ways globalization is impacting public health worldwide.

Dearry’s talk focused on global shipping and ports, overseas manufacturing and exports, and the growing number of the world’s people involved in electronic waste (e-waste) recycling. Dearry’s presentation was a call to the public and private sectors everywhere to abandon the “out of sight, out of mind” attitude that has allowed the global economy to flourish with minimal oversight or accountability — except to the financial bottom line of those who benefit most.

“Ships are an important source of carbon dioxide, the main driver of climate change and ocean acidification,” Dearry explained. Their impact is felt in communities along coastlines adjacent to shipping lanes, along the world’s busiest shipping lanes and in the oceanic ecosystem worldwide. Dearry also pointed to the health effects of goods movement. Particulate matter emissions alone from shipping account for approximately 60,000 cardiopulmonary and lung cancer deaths each year around the world.

Dearry focused on China, where 386,645 people died of work-related illnesses in 2005, as an example of the occupational health impact of feeding the American marketplace. Developing countries, such as China, rarely enforce the limits they have in place for workplace exposure to hazardous elements and compounds.

In China, “More than 200 million workers of China’s labor force of 700 million were routinely exposed to toxic chemicals,” Dearry observed. “China’s carbon dioxide emissions doubled in five years, and it is likely the world’s largest emitter.” Most of this trend is driven by the manufacture of goods which are exported from China to developed countries.

Dearry turned finally to the dark side of America’s love for the latest electronic gadget. “About 80 percent of US e-waste is exported to the developing world,” he said. “E-waste is the most rapidly growing segment of the municipal waste stream in the world.”

In a struggle to eke out a living, disadvantaged people in some developing countries often expose themselves to dangerous levels of the lead, barium, chromium, mercury, brominated flame retardants and polyvinyl chlorides present in discarded computers, televisions, cell phones and other e-waste exported from developing countries, Dearry maintained.

The solutions that Dearry presented will involve concerted and aggressive efforts by business and governments at home and abroad. Some are so obvious that it’s a wonder they weren’t in place years ago, such as reducing the speed of ships at sea and “cold ironing” — requiring ships in port to plug into electricity rather than use their diesel engines. Others require hard-to-achieve universal agreement on international treaties, such as the Basel Convention of 1989 that has yet to be signed by several countries, to inform developing nations of all incoming shipments of hazardous waste, including e-waste.

Local and national governments can take action, as have New Jersey, Washington, California and Maryland, to promote green product design and control movement of e-waste. Governments of developing countries can put in place stricter workplace safety measures and limits on emissions. American retailers and manufacturers can oversee their offshore suppliers and facilities more effectively.

“Everyone has a stake in what is happening with our global economic system and its effects on climate change and public health,” Dearry concluded, “and everyone bears some responsibility for the solutions.”

Some Examples of the Effects of the Global Economy

Each of the three sections of Dearry’s presentation offered some disturbing data about the sea transportation, offshore manufacturing and e-waste disposal that have proliferated in the growing global economy.

  • According to International Maritime Organization estimates, ocean-going vessels released an amount of carbon dioxide in 2007 equivalent to the annual greenhouse emissions of 205 million cars — more cars than were registered in the US in 2006.
  • The ports of Los Angeles/Long Beach emit more than 20 percent of Southern California’s particulate pollution, which contributes to more than one million respiratory-related school absences, 62,000 cases of asthma symptoms and 2,400 premature heart-related deaths each year.
  • China’s exports to the US have grown to $290 billion from $51 billion just a decade ago, and more than 80 percent of the 6,000 factories in Walmart’s worldwide database of suppliers are located in China.
  • During the years 2002 to 2004, benzene levels in Chinese factories were more than 11 times the US EPA allowable level, contributing to China’s dubious honor as the country which has more deaths per capita from work-related illnesses each year than any other country.
  • Africa’s largest port, Lagos, Nigeria, receives the equivalent of 400,000 computers or monitors each month, and nearly all of it is thrown into unlined and unmonitored landfills, which are close to groundwater and routinely set afire.
  • In Guiya, China, 70 percent of families engage in e-waste recycling operations, most using primitive techniques, such as hammers and prying tools to separate the most valuable — and usually most hazardous — metals and compounds for re-sale.

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