China's Health and Safety Problems Will Become America's

The immediate national security threat to Americans is China’s continuing failure to address its health and safety problems through effective regulation.

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A masked Chinese man walks past a woman wrapping her head with a scarf on a street as capital city is hit by polluted air and sandstorm in Beijing Saturday, March 9, 2013.

Mieke Eoyang is the director of Third Way's National Security Program. Prior to joining Third Way, Eoyang had a long career on Capitol Hill. Among other positions, she served as the defense policy adviser to Sen. Edward Kennedy, was the subcommittee staff director on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and was a professional staff member on the House Armed Services Committee. Aki Peritz is the senior policy adviser for national security at Third Way.

As regular as springtime allergy season is in Washington, the "China threat" is in the newspapers again. We've all heard about how China's military is saber-rattling over disputed rocks off the coast of Taiwan, building up ports across the Indian Ocean, and even testing a new(ish) aircraft carrier.

All important developments, yes, but there's an unspoken security threat emanating from China that, unlike a new Yuan-class submarine or a fleet of semi-stealthy jets, affects millions of Americans today. The more immediate national security threat is China's continuing failure to address its health and safety problems through effective regulation.

"Huh?" you might ask. China's systemic, continuing failure to clean up its industries affects the air Americans breathe, the food Americans eat, the drugs Americans take, and even the toys America's children play with. Protecting the safety and health of our citizens is a core security challenge for US policymakers. This is the concern that should be addressed—now.

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Take the food we eat. Beijing's inability to properly regulate its environmental challenges doesn't stay across the ocean. Some estimate that arsenic and heavy metals have compromised up to 40 percent of China's soil; the actual percentage from a 2010 government survey is still considered a state secret. Furthermore, 90 percent of Chinese urban areas' groundwater is considered polluted, with about 60 percent of groundwater considered "severely polluted".

That compromised soil and fetid water nourishes the grains and pesticide-loaded vegetables that Chinese livestock eat and drink, free from most effective regulations—part of China's $41 billion in global food exports—which eventually winds its way to the US market. And whether it's catfish or ginger or strawberries, you're putting this into your family's mouth at dinnertime. Enjoy!

And it's not just food. From high concentrations of lead in Chinese-made cooking and eating utensils on the streets of Philadelphia, to toothpaste contaminated with diethylene glycol, to blood-thinning drugs in Chicago filled with, well, fake drugs; to formaldehyde-soaked plywood FEMA trailers; to toxic pufferfish being mislabeled as edible monkfish; even to pet food that causes kidney failure: all can be traced back to China and its ineffective regulatory mechanisms. These problems all affect millions of Americans much more so than the latest stealth frigate.

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There haven't been any major food scandals in 2013, but given the lax regulatory efforts of the Chinese government, as well as the immense amount of money that can be made by cutting corners, expect to see another massive scandal eventually.

Of course, most Chinese citizens are painfully aware of their government's regulatory shortcomings, and environmental activism is quickly becoming a major source of concern for Beijing. It must be galling for China's top policymakers to know that their own children drink contaminated baby milk, eat poison-laced foods, or breathe contaminated air on a daily basis. All these factors also lead to many other lifelong problems among kids, including lung damage, reduced intelligence and heart disease. And maybe the Communist Party, in order to stay in power, will realize that it will have to address these concerns sooner and much more effectively.  

But since China's problems affect us directly, America can help move this process along by providing Beijing a roadmap out of its current predicament. We too have struggled with many of the environmental and regulatory concerns that China now faces.

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After all, it wasn't until 1906 that a precursor to the Food and Drug Administration began seizing contaminated food and drugs, and even getting that effort off the ground took a few decades. It took over 100 deaths in 1937 to a medicine containing diethylene glycol (the same solvent used in the Chinese toothpaste scandal) for Congress to finally allow effective oversight and regulation of food, drugs, and cosmetics in this country. Oh, and China's favorite U.S. President, Richard Nixon, founded the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970.

Beijing needs to get serious about getting a handle on its massive environmental problems since they directly affect the Chinese economy and the well-being of the Chinese people. To prove that they're a mature country and a responsible global player, China should start cleaning up its act.

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