Along with toys, clothes and electronics, air pollution is being exported from Asia to the West Coast in amounts that could be harmful to people and the environment, according to research presented yesterday by scientists in Seattle.
In Asia, carbon monoxide, tiny bits of toxic materials, dust and ozone are drawn high into the atmosphere and whisked around the globe. The plumes of pollution are frequently detected by ground monitors in the Northwest and by airplanes. About once a year, enough is carried over to potentially be problematic.
"Does it really matter for air quality over here?" asked Daniel Jaffe, an environmental science professor at the University of Washington's Bothell campus. "It does, sometimes."
Jaffe presented his research on airborne pollution at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting, which runs until Monday.
The concern is that when local air quality is bad, an influx of pollution from overseas can nudge the amount over levels set to protect human health.
Interest in this area of research has increased in the last few years as equipment has improved, allowing for more sensitive detection, scientists said.
"Global-scale pollution is something we now know happens in many, many places," Jaffe said. "The scientific community is starting to understand ... that pollutants can get mixed around."
Large-scale events that spread pollution, such as last summer's forest fires in Siberia and the April 2001 windstorms in Mongolia's Gobi Desert, have piqued the interest of researchers and health officials.
The fires raised the levels of ozone in Western Washington beyond federal limits. Ozone can cause breathing difficulty, coughing and throat irritation, plus trigger asthma attacks.
The windstorm increased nationwide the amount of fine particles in the air. The dust particles can bind with minute bits of toxic substances, researchers said.
"They get lodged in your lungs and stay there, and the pollutants they carry along with them get lodged in your lungs," said David Parrish, a research chemist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder, Colo., who also presented work.
"It's not fundamentally that different from cigarette smoke," Jaffe said.
A couple of years ago, the Environmental Protection Agency enlisted Jaffe to investigate the contribution of airborne mercury in fish contamination.
But air pollution remains largely a local problem, regional air-quality officials said.
Occasionally, pollution from overseas is cause for concern, said Alice Collingwood, a spokeswoman for the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency. But, she added, "It's not a major continuing source of pollution in our region.
"It's really still just about us."
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