Chinese Pollution Is An Increasing Threat

Where to start? With the melting glaciers of Mount Everest?

Or a village in Shanxi province that survives on trucked-in water — because underground explosions for coal mining have drained the lakes and wells. The coal keeps electric plants humming, but the mining generates pollution that has left farm fields toxic.

Nothing can grow here anymore, one resident told CBS News correspondent Barry Petersen. Sinkholes swallowed village graves and the coal dust makes breathing hard — which is why 400,000 people each year die prematurely from lung disease.

And thanks to bad air, China has 16 of the world's top 20 polluted cities.

What are the world's most polluted cities?
Take Beijing, which just proudly announced it now has 3 million cars ... so clear days give way to more bad pollution days.

And there's a new danger: Dust storms from the northern Gobi Desert used to hit once a decade. Now it's once a year; visibility can drop to less than a city block.

It's happening because every day the Gobi Desert moves a little more south, claiming land left barren by overgrazing or from water shortages because of too much irrigation.

In fact, Petersen reports, the leading edge of the desert is less than 50 miles from downtown Beijing.

China's uses America's inaction on the environment as an excuse.

"They say as long as the U.S. doesn't move forward, how can you expect a poor country like China to move forward," said University of Michigan China scholar Ken Leiberthal.

And an ill wind is blowing China's bad air to America. Steve Cliff already sees Chinese pollutants on his monitors in northern California and worries about China's ever-increasing dependence on coal.

"It stands to reason that if one new coal-fired power plant is built per week that more pollution will be evidenced here in the United States," said Cliff.

That also means Americans may soon be paying a price for China's polluted rise to prosperity.