One of the first things you notice when arriving in China is the amount of smog that sits in the air around its cities. Ya’an is considered small in regards to Shanghai or Beijing with a population of 1.5 million, but it’s no exception to the dense clouds of lung burning air. China’s explosive growth in the last two decades has given rise to an overwhelming demand of electricity for its 1.35 billion inhabitants. In response to this, the Chinese government is building and bringing online a new power plant each week. The majority of these power plants are coal fired, and with the burning of coal comes a slew of pollutants that are released into the air.
Coal powers over 40% of the worlds electrical needs and is increasing every year. Coal ranges from low grade, lignite, to high grade anthracite. The higher the grade the harder and less volatile the coal is. Most of the coal that is burned in China is mid grade, bituminous coal, which produces about 2-3 times the amount of volatiles as does coal from the U.S. To put this more simply, American coal is cleaner. Although the U.S. is receiving almost 50% of its power supply from coal burning power plants, there are many measures to protect against the harmful and unsightly volatiles that escape its combustion. This is not the case in China whose coal addiction is at 70% of its power supply.
Many of the same measures that protect Americans from toxins such as Arsenic, Selenium and Mercury are not in place in China. The technology to trap such chemicals is developing at a rapid pace which offers governments multiple options for cleaning up their power supplies. The only holdup is the fact that it is not cost effective. In some places, human health is not a top priority especially when high production and low wages are the key to success. What this boils down to is the need for an educated public on the effects of their power supplies.
When I initially sat down with several individuals to explain what I would be doing with coal samples, bamboo and panda hair (mercury analysis), I drew a lot of blank stares. As it turned out, no one knew what mercury was or how it could show up in such biota. I explained a little further on how the combustion of coals and certain other fossil fuels can release chemicals into the air, but still no lightbulbs went off. All the more reason to get people involved and interested.
Most Chinese look at me like I am a little off of my rocker when they see me scurrying up the mountainside to pick leaves from a few branches of bamboo. But what really gathers a crowd is trying to watch me buy honeycomb coal from the pull carts that sell it all around town. These honeycombs are produced by shoveling coal fragments into a truck sized machine that compresses several cake molds of various sizes. The coal that is used comes directly from nearby mines and is the same bituminous grade that is burnt in power plants. These cakes are primarily used in rural areas, but also offer a very portable heating source for street vendors and shop keepers.
To put China’s coal consumption into perspective, they use three times as much coal as the U.S. who happens to be the second biggest consumer. The U.S. actually exports coal to China to meet their demand. As power plants and several other sources burn coal for power, tradewinds carry the volatized particulates and the toxic slew of chemicals all the way across the Pacific ocean back to our doorstep in the U.S. With such a valuable resource beneath our feet, we tend to jump on these types of opportunities without realizing the consequences to our health.