01 February 2010

What it costs to save a buck, part 1

Two friends who grew up in Long Beach, California, have asthma. The childhood asthma rate for Long Beach is 22%; the rate for the US as a whole is 14%. What do you think it costs Los Angeles County - in health care, in decreased productivity - to have large communities with asthma rates 50% higher than the national average? Even if all of those families in Long Beach, Wilmington, Lomita, Harbor City, Carson and San Pedro have insurance - and they don't, but let's say they do - their insurance carriers have to charge the entire pool of their policy holders higher rates to cover the costs of carrying health insurance on people who are far more likely to have asthma. Someone's gotta pay, and the premise behind insurance is that you spread that cost around a broad pool of policy holders - that's how it works - so everyone who has health insurance with a company that insures people in the Port of Long Beach and Los Angeles region pays more to cover their asthma related exposure and expenses.

According to the US Census, the poverty rate in Long Beach is over 19%, so we can assume that many of those folks don't have insurance. How do you treat your child's asthma if you don't have insurance? Think about that - if your three old can't breathe, what do you do? You go to the ER. They have to treat you. And someone has to pay for it. What if you have to take a day off work to take your little girl to the ER? You can take a vacation day or a sick day, if you get them, but more than likely you have only time off without pay. So now you're further behind financially.

Why is the asthma rate so high in Long Beach and Lomita and Carson? It's an area of high asthma rates because it has poor air quality. And it has poor air quality because of its largest employer, the Port of Long Beach (Above, from the LA Almanac, here.)

I love the Port. When I lived in Long Beach I used to love to go over and watch the cranes unload the cars from South Korea and Japan, and the forty foot containers of consumer goods from China. It's an amazing sight to see - the human will and ingenuity is on display everywhere; the scale of the ship and the mountains of goods was dwarfing; the wealth and interconnectedness of Pacific nations was just cool to witness first hand. There are good Union jobs at the ports, and that work sustains blue collar families in ways that good Union jobs sustained millions of Americans in previous decades, and allowed their kids to access the middle class.

But the ships that come into it burn bunker fuel,

...so dirty each particle of exhaust legally can be 3,000 times higher in sulfur than the fuel soon to be used by new diesel trucks. Even industry lobbyists have said international ship-fuel standards for sulfur, a primary component of acid rain, are ridiculously high.

And it's not just sulfur, though that's a good place to start:

International shipping accounts for eight percent of global sulphur emissions. This is unsurprising considering that the industry largely uses bunker fuel, which... contains the excess sulphur driven out by the distillation process, upwards of 2000 times that which is found in highway diesel fuel.

Think about how dirty a semi truck is, and now think about the fact that the oil that ships burn, from Hong Kong or Shanghai or Singapore or Yokohama to Long Beach or Los Angeles or Oakland, is one thousand times dirtier.

So when we buy stuff that's imported from China, or Bangladesh, or the Philippines, or the E.U., or from any country outside the NAFTA zone that delivers goods by sea, we are buying stuff that was shipped here in a forty foot container on a container ship. Everything we do to feel like we're making a difference in our daily emissions: all the newer, cleaner, more efficient private cars in the world, and all our work in changing every light bulb in the house to a high energy fluorescent; all the laws more tightly regulating diesel emissions in trucks and trains in the U.S., Canada and Mexico through NAFTA; all the additional taxes on air travel for carbon offsets; all the reduced trips on "Spare the Air Days" and all of the awareness of our carbon footprint - all of it doesn't matter if we still chase the "cheapest" consumer goods.

If we - the American consumer, you and I - insist on saving a dollar on a t-shirt that was made in China and shipped here in a forty foot container, then we are heavy, heavy polluters. No one thing would reduce our environmental impact - emissions, fuel consumption, carbon footprint - as much as not buying things shipped to us in bunker-fuel driven 40-foot container cargo vessels.

Do you feel good about recycling that cardboard box when you get home from the store? Good for you. But if it was packaged in China and shipped here in a 40-foot container, you are still deeply, deeply in the red, environmentally speaking.

When we save a buck on that t-shirt, we reward bad behavior, we shift costs to the public sphere (our taxes pay for harbor infrastructure and rail and highway distribution networks, and for higher public assistance costs related to health care and decreased productivity) and give profits to the private sphere (factory owners, ship owners, retail outlet owners). Do we really want to do that?

So look at the label when you go shopping, and stop saving thirty cents or a buck or three bucks on stuff that was made overseas.

When we "save" on cheap, sea-shipped imported goods, we are buying asthma for our neighbors and thus additional health care costs for ourselves, we are buying sulfur and heavy particulate pollution for our ecosystems, and we are overwhelming any good work that we do in other areas of our lives in terms of recycling or reducing our fuel consumption.

Doesn't seem like such a good deal, does it?


1 comment:

CFox said...

Wow, "Buy American." Have to say that I LOVE knowing that you used to go to the port for fun!