Week of 8/30/09

Dear EarthTalk: Has China been making any progress reducing its output of global warming gases, and/or in tackling other environmental problems?

—Bill W., Saugus, MA

Decades of rapid-fire development and lack of government oversight has meant that China now faces some serious environmental challenges. According to research by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, China surpassed the United States as the world’s leading emitter of greenhouse gases in 2006—and hasn’t looked back. (While the Chinese emit some eight percent more carbon dioxide than their American counterparts, the U.S. still leads the world in greenhouse gas emissions per capita, due to its significantly smaller population size and higher standard of living.)

Beyond its contribution to global warming, China is also a world leader in other forms of pollution, given its huge population and its ambition to become the next international economic superpower. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), current levels of air pollution in China far exceed international environmental standards. A recent analysis found, for example, that the air in some four dozen Chinese cities contained as much as seven times as much particulate pollution—which can get lodged in human lungs and cause a wide range of health problems—as deemed safe by WHO.

But critics say blaming China for its rampant pollution is unfair, given all the manufacturing the world’s developed countries outsource to Chinese companies. Qin Gang, China’s foreign ministry spokesman, refers to China as the "world’s factory" and says: "A lot of what you use, wear and eat is produced in China
"On the one hand, you increase production in China; on the other hand you criticize China on the emission reduction issue." Yang Ailun of Greenpeace China agrees: "All the West has done is export a great slice of its carbon footprint to China and make China the world’s factory."

Critics say blaming China alone for its rampant pollution is unfair, given that developed countries source a significant amount of manufacturing there. "All the West has done," says Greenpeace, "is export a great slice of its carbon footprint to China and make China the world
s factory." Pictured: A cloud of coal pollution hangs over a cluster of power lines in China's northern region.© Adam Cohn, courtesy Flickr

Despite its efforts to go green, China still depends on coal—the dirtiest of all the fossil fuels—for some two-thirds of its energy needs. Chinese officials have strenuously opposed the binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions set by developing countries, arguing that already industrialized nations are to blame for most of the emissions already in the atmosphere.

According to Isabel Hilton, a journalist with the UK’s Guardian, industrialized countries should feel an obligation to shoulder at least some of the burden of helping China become a greener nation. "This means drastically reducing our own emissions and helping China with the finance and technology required to move to a sustainable, low-carbon economic system."

There is progress afoot: Meetings between top Chinese and U.S. officials earlier this year led to the creation of a joint research center to address issues related to clean energy, with each country contributing $15 million to pay for initial research efforts.

CONTACTS: Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency; World Health Organization; Greenpeace China.

Dear EarthTalk: What are the pros and cons of feeding babies formula versus breast milk? And if I purchase formula, should I spend the extra money on the organic variety?<.b>

—Suzy W., via e-mail

It is generally acknowledged within the medical community that breast milk is the ideal first food for babies, though modern formula brands can get the job done, too. Many companies now make organic baby formula, a sure way to avoid the chemicals in many non-organic varieties.© George Doyle, Getty images

It is generally acknowledged within the medical community that breast milk is the ideal first food for babies, though modern formula brands can get the job done, too. Human breast milk naturally contains the vitamins and minerals a newborn requires. According to the website KidsHealth.org, breastfed infants have less difficulty with digestion than their formula-fed counterparts. And since breast milk is easily digested, breastfed babies have fewer incidences of diarrhea or constipation.

Also, researchers have found that infants fed with human breast milk have lower rates of hospital admissions, ear infections, diarrhea, rashes and allergies than bottle-fed babies. Meanwhile, a raft of studies suggest that infants who are fed breast milk may have lower incidences of asthma, diabetes, obesity and other health problems later on in life.

"Human milk is made for human infants, and it meets all their specific nutrient needs," says Ruth Lawrence, M.D., spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics and professor of pediatrics and obstetrics at the University of Rochester School of Medicine in New York. "We’ve known for years that the death rates in Third World countries are lower among breast-fed babies," she adds. "Breast-fed babies are healthier and have fewer infections than formula-fed babies."

Another related upside to breast milk is cost savings—both for families and the larger health care system. Mothers who can’t or choose not to breast feed end up spending hundreds if not thousands of dollars per year on formula, and higher incidences of illness and disease down the road means higher costs for all.

One concern with breast feeding is that toxins present in mom’s bloodstream can make their way into baby. But a 2007 study by Ohio State and Johns Hopkins University researchers found that levels of chemicals in breast milk were far below U.S. Environmental Protection Agency maximum acceptable levels for even drinking water, and that indoor air in typical American homes contains as much as 135 times as many contaminants as mother’s milk. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control maintains that the benefits of breastfeeding far outweigh any chemical exposure risks. "To date, effects on the nursing infant have been seen only where the mother herself was clinically ill from a toxic exposure," reports the agency.

Of course, not all mothers are able to breastfeed, and in such cases formula can be a healthy alternative. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulates all baby formulas to ensure purity and that they meet nutritional requirements. Parents should know, however, that they may not be avoiding chemical exposure by opting for formula. Non-organic formula can contain the same or higher amounts of chemical residues left over from its raw materials. One way around this is to buy organic formula. Leading makers include Nature’s One, Earth’s Best and Bright Beginnings. Enfamil and Similac also now offer organic varieties.

CONTACTS: Kids Health; American Academy of Pediatrics; U.S. Food and Drug Administration; Consumer Reports.

EarthTalk is now a book! Details and order information at: emagazine.com/earthtalkbook.