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True cost of cheap Chinese goods

On the other side of the world, crimes against humanity and environment are taking place. Rivers and streams are carpeted with the most unimaginable detritus from manufacturing plants — so much so one can hardly tell there is water underneath. Powerful chemicals from manufacturing processes are dumped into the water. Dead fish are everywhere.

Chemical residues contaminate soils. Acrid smoke, containing more chemicals, billows into the air and produces a black smog that blots out the sun. Birth defects and deaths from cancers and other diseases in contaminated areas are so numerous as to defy statistical norms.

Overuse of fertilizers and pesticides has, according to an official survey, dumped more effluent into rivers, lakes, and streams than manufacturing, and virtually uncontrolled expansion of livestock and aquaculture have generated vast amounts of wastes.

China’s vast manufacturing areas are among the most polluted on earth, a distinction that has been abetted in part by companies in the industrialized nations seeking the cheapest possible per unit costs while overlooking the terrible corollary costs.

If you want to see really disturbing photos documenting this, check out

It is reminiscent of the Minamata tragedy in post-war Japan, when thousands of people suffered catastrophic health problems — many of them babies born with horribly crippling deformities — as a result of petrochemical companies dumping mercury-contaminated sludge into Minamata Bay.

It took riots, exposure by the Japanese and world press, and a heart-wrenching photo essay by the great American photographer Eugene Smith to finally pressure the government to stop the situation.

China’s pollution problems today are far vaster in scale, and its dictatorial government, in its determination to be a world economic power, has thus far seemed inclined to gloss over its own pollution findings and to squelch protests that have occurred.

In one anti-pollution demonstration near an industrial plant in Fujian Province, some 2,000 riot police fired tear gas and warning shots at protesters. State-run news blamed “unlawful elements” for the demonstrations.

It’s estimated that China accounts for 30 percent to 35 percent of all nitrogen fertilizers used worldwide. For nearly 5,000 years, its millions of small farms served as carbon absorbers, says the dean of a Chinese agricultural university. But in just the last 40 years, he says, agriculture has become a major pollution source, and his research shows that farmers use almost twice as much fertilizer as needed for crops.

It’s easy enough for the rest of the world to turn a blind eye to the terrible toll of pollution, human and ecological, that is occurring in China — just keep the cheap goods flowing, and if they despoil their land and people in the process, well, hey, not our problem.

But if China wants to take a place in the world community, the U.S. and other nations that have spent many billions of dollars solving these problems should insist that China do likewise.

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