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CNN reported in April that the State of Global Air (SoGA) has been released; it indicated that air pollution ranked fifth among the world's leading causes of death. This is higher than alcohol, malnutrition, and drugs.

In South Asia, where pollution is particularly severe, it is estimated that the average life expectancy of individuals is shortened by approximately 30 months, while the worldwide average is estimated at approximately 20 months. The infant mortality rate in South Asia has always been high; how is this taken into account in the estimation? It is especially the case for economic and environmental statistical figures that even when the source is a prestigious academic institution we often feel, “Mathematically this looks correct, but does this really reflect the truth?”

That said, there is no doubt that air pollution is a serious issue in many developing countries, and especially in South Asia. It is also common sense that dirty air is not good for health. Therefore, it is not at all difficult to admit that people's lives are shortened because of pollution.

To put it simply, “Industrialized countries export pollution to the third world.” During the period of high economic growth, Japan experienced serious nationwide air pollution and industrial water pollution. The so-called four big pollution diseases of Japan are widely known: the Minamata disease (Kumamoto prefecture), the second Minamata disease (Niigata prefecture; also called the Niigata Minamata disease), the Itai-itai disease (Toyama prefecture), and the Yokkaichi asthma (Mie prefecture). Looking elsewhere in the world, London experienced a major air pollution incident in 1952 which caused a huge debate that the city of fog was actually a city of smog. The Industrial Revolution in the UK was driven by a large consumption of coal, from power generation to home heating and cooking, which became the direct cause of respiratory illness and heart disease. These are considered to have killed more than 12,000 people in 1952 alone.

In Korea, during the 1980s, people experienced severe neuralgia, or even worse, a mysterious illness called “Onsan illness”, which caused paralysis of the whole body. Although the exact cause is unknown, it is believed to be industrial chemical pollution. The area of outbreak occurred in an industrial complex called Onsan Industrial Park where non-ferrous metal smelters and oil refineries were concentrated. Toxic smoke was emitted to the air and industrial wastewater was discharged without any treatment because no appropriate environmental regulations existed at that time. The fact that environmental health was still a new field might have been a reason for the lack of environmental consideration. However, there was also a lack of policy framework, or political will, to protect the environment and health in the name of industrial development.

Since around the end of the 20th century, companies in the industrialized world began to shift their production bases to Asian countries. For example, many apparel brands that are popular among young people in Japan, the US, and Europe, such as adidas and Gap, are now primarily manufactured in Cambodia and Bangladesh. This is mainly because of their low property and labor costs, not because of any environmental concerns. In other words, no export of pollution was intended. However, it is a fact that these companies, despite the tragic pollution experiences in their countries’ history (such as the four big pollution diseases of Japan mentioned above), were negligent about the environmental impact of the smoke, wastewater, and industrial waste on the surrounding environs when they built up factories in the third world.

Of course, there is a responsibility on the part of the host countries’ governments. Nonetheless, we should consider the potentially unfair economic burden that these host countries would have to bear in terms of environmental investments. For example, in order to remove air pollutants when generating electricity by burning fossil fuels, a treatment process must be applied, which involves enormous cost for the installation of the treatment device. Such costs would eventually be added to the electric bill, or the manufacturing cost, thus hampering production, employment, and ultimately, economic growth.

It is not just about production facilities. Many industrialized countries ship their waste (especially plastic waste that is difficult to dispose of and which releases toxic gases into the air when burnt) into less-industrialized countries. Even worse, some are falsely labelled as recyclable materials.

In short, manufacturers and consumers in developed countries must increasingly realize their part in having caused severe environmental pollution in developing countries and do their duty to assist in mitigating and solving the problem. Some companies have finally embarked on such an effort; 7-Eleven, the largest convenience store chain in Japan, and the major coffee chain Starbucks, have announced an initiative to replace plastic straws with paper straws. Some say that it is a marketing strategy. That’s fine. The important thing is to keep doing what we can do, so these corporate efforts should be commended.

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