Michele Bachmann, the Minnesota Republican Member of Congress who's running for President, vows she'll cripple the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency if she's elected. Maybe if she spent a week in China like I recently did, she'd change her mind.
I've just returned from a seven-day trip to Beijing, China's capital, and Xi'an, the country's cultural heart and soul and home to its famous terra cotta soldiers. In that entire time, I never saw the sun or sky. Nor was I able to drink the water that came out of any tap.
Why? The sky was cloaked in grey smog so thick it obscured the tops of buildings, not to mention the heavens above. The air, while not exactly putrid, smelled dank and dangerous -- a result of massive numbers of polluting cars on the road and regional industrial plants that spew contaminants into the air willy nilly.
I could have worn a surgical mask like many of the city's permanent residents. Instead, I opted to be a "guinea pig" and see how much the smog would affect me as I went back and forth to various business meetings and tourist destinations.
After just three days in Beijing, I developed a sore throat and itchy eyes, and lost any desire to explore the city's beautiful parks. I could have easily walked distances of a mile or two. Instead, I took the subway to avoid breathing the outdoor air unnecessarily. Back at my hotel, I kept the windows closed, choosing a stuffy room over a polluted one.
The water coming out of my faucet looked cleaner than the air -- but I would have been a fool to drink it. Water treatment anywhere in China is thoroughly inadequate. The country's drinking water is tainted not just by household waste but from relentless industrial run-off.
Some government figures estimate that over 70 percent of the nation's rivers have been contaminated by the discharge of heavy metals and other toxins directly into streams and tributaries that feed into China's waterways. Water treatment facilities remove a smattering of contaminants but never clean up the water to the point where it is drinkable. And this creates another problem.
Independent companies are privatizing the water, purifying and bottling it, and selling it to the public by the tons. What happens to all the empty plastic water bottles? They end up back in the rivers and streams when they're trashed.
Why is China so polluted? In short, because it has neither a power federal environmental protection agency nor adequate laws for such an agency to enforce. Yes, the government gives lip service to reducing pollution and protecting public health. But local activists in Beijing told me that given the physical size of the country, a population of more than 1 billion people, and tens of thousands of "renegade" manufacturing facilities, neither air nor water quality will improve significantly until the government makes a real commitment to strengthen and enforce its environmental laws.
This is not to say that air and water in the U.S. are perfect, or even good enough. A recent study by Environment America, using data provided by the American Lung Association, reported that nearly half of all Americans -- 48 percent -- live in areas plagued by unhealthy smog pollution.
A water quality analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council concluded that 22 million Americans may be drinking water that contains excessive levels of poisonous arsenic, among other chemicals. But the same Environment America study notes that "air quality has improved significantly in the last decade as a result of policies at the state and federal level."
The non-profit Environmental Working Group found over 90 percent compliance by water utilities in applying and enforcing standards that exist. Their recommendation: that EPA set even more effective standards so water quality will continue to improve.
We can continue cleaning up our air or water. Or, we can abolish the EPA and look a lot more like China. I suggest Michele Bachmann go to China before she decides.
Diane MacEachern is the author of "Big Green Purse: Use Your Spending Power to Create a Cleaner, Greener World" and the publisher of www.biggreenpurse.com.