Issue Date: October 29, 2007
China's Cancer Villages
IT WOULD BE difficult to find a worse place to be farming. The Yu family farm on the outskirts of Zhangzhuang village is next to the Kui River. Zhangzhuang is in the township of Yongqiao, within the vast municipal boundaries of Suzhou, a city in northern Anhui province.
The Kui is heavily contaminated. Factories and households in Xuzhou, in the upstream province of Jiangsu, dump their waste in it. It stinks of sewage, it's devoid of fish, and dark residues floating on its surface give it a frightening look.
About half a mile from the Yu farm, the Suzhou Pesticide Factory produces insecticides. It's not clear what insecticides the plant actually turns out; workers there claim not to know.
Most evenings after sunset, Zhangzhuang residents say, production at the plant gets under way. That's when the villagers begin to breathe noxious fumes that make their eyes water. The villagers say the plant runs only at night so that it does not upset local government officials who live in Suzhou proper. Suzhou is a small regional center with only a few hundred thousand residents. It is worlds away from the tourist-friendly city near Shanghai that bears the same name.
The Yu family gets its cooking and drinking water from a 60-foot well about 150 feet from the Kui River. They suspect the water is unsafe, but they can't afford the costly tests that could verify this. Hoping for the best but fearing the worst, they know they won't be able to afford much more than a single consultation with a doctor in the event of severe illness. "If we get cancer, we'll just die without care," the mother says.
A lot of people get cancer in Zhangzhuang. The villagers don't know exactly how they rank within China, but they believe they fare far worse than the country as a whole.
Late last year, Zhangzhuang attracted national attention in China when one of its children, a 12-year-old girl, died of stomach cancer. Nowadays, her farming parents are expressionless as they go through their daily chores; the father says he has no idea what caused his daughter to get so sick. The village is less than a mile from the Kui.
There are perhaps several hundred "cancer villages" in China, places where the incidence of cancer is well over twice the national average. Local officials responsible for those villages often resist addressing the problem because the solution may entail shutting down manufacturing facilities that provide jobs and tax revenues. This summer, China's outspoken vice minister of the environment, Pan Yue, told media that local officials in parts of China collude with businesspeople to allow the operation of polluting plants that his agency has ordered shut down.
IT'S DIFFICULT to quantify the problem of the cancer villages, but it seems China is facing a public health crisis in its countryside, where two-thirds of the population still lives. The government acknowledges that more than 300 million Chinese do not have access to safe drinking water. Although this number is rapidly shrinking, every few months the Chinese media report on a new cancer village.
China's central government is studying the issue. The Ministry of Health has been conducting surveys in many parts of China, including one last year in the Yongqiao district of Suzhou. The ministry did not release the results, but a team of four investigative reporters from the official Xinhua News Agency descended on Zhangzhuang late last year and gained access to the data.
Since 1974, the Xinhua reporters found, the incidence of lung cancer has increased almost eightfold in the district of Yongqiao, where Zhangzhuang is located. The team also discovered that liver cancer is 3.6 times more prevalent and that the mortality rate from the disease is 40% higher than it used to be.
An academic familiar with the survey tells C&EN that the ministry also found that cancer rates among people living more than three miles from the Kui River, but still within the municipal boundaries of Suzhou, are actually lower than the national average. This indicates that the Kui is to blame for many health problems, he says.
The Yu family says no one has proven to them that their well water is unsafe. They also say they don't have an alternative source of supply. (Eliciting great interest among the Yu family, C&EN took a sample of their well water and submitted it for analysis at a government-owned lab in China. The results will be available in a few weeks.)
A professor of environmental engineering at a major university on China's east coast tells C&EN that conducting a proper environmental survey of an area like Zhangzhuang, including numerous air and water samples, is extremely costly.
For well water, it costs about $250 per sample to conduct the full battery of about 100 different tests that measure concentrations of the most common contaminants. When officials discover extreme industrial pollution in a particular area, China's current practice of simply ordering the closure of suspicious local factories makes economic sense, the professor says. In China's countryside, low-tech industrial production facilities are often built for less than $1 million.
Such practices can stanch the local flow of pollutants into a province's environment. Suzhou authorities cannot clean up the Kui using this strategy, because much of the pollution originates in the neighboring province of Jiangsu where they have no authority. To improve public health in Zhangzhuang, Suzhou officials are instead building a system of underground pipes to distribute clean water throughout the village. Much of the work has been completed, but villagers say they don't know when running water will be available or what its source will be.
Further south in Anhui province, in Simazhuang, a village in the city of Bengbu, residents were told to expect running water by next February. Bengbu is Anhui's second-largest city and is larger and more industrialized than Suzhou. In Bengbu's center runs the Huai River, one of China's largest and most polluted rivers. Simazhuang is a few miles away from the center of Bengbu. Unlike Zhangzhuang, which is 50 miles away from the center of Suzhou, Simazhuang can easily be connected to Bengbu's main water supply.
The environmental conditions in which the residents of Simazhuang live is appalling. Next to their village runs a man-made canal called Baojiagou that carries effluent from some of Bengbu's chemical plants. Earlier this year, Baojiagou came under national media attention because its water had turned completely black for several miles. The media interest forced authorities to close some of the plants that were polluting the canal, Simazhuang residents say. Before this happened, Baojiagou emitted such a strong smell that it was not possible to stand next to it, they say.
Less than a mile from Simazhuang is a large chemical complex, Fubo Chemical, that residents say sends acrid odors throughout the village for most of the year. During summer, residents note, the stench of a new municipal garbage dump set up three miles away also pervades the village.
The residents of Simazhuang rely on farming for their livelihood. Some used to raise fish in ponds, but they say the deterioration of the water quality has made this impossible for at least five years. "You put fish in the pond, and they all float to the surface, dead," says Wen, a mother in her 30s. There are beautiful vegetables in several plots of land in the village, but residents say they have to use well water to grow them.
Standing in a field next to the Baojiagou canal, Yu Si Yong, a 35-year-old resident of Simazhuang, says he's not afraid to have his photo taken. He's more concerned about his future health than about having his face appearing in a foreign magazine. "I look fine now, don't I?" he asks. "Who knows if I will still be healthy in 10 years." He claims that a lot of people get sick in the village, often fatally so. Blood clots in the brain are common, villagers say, as are various cancers.
Hong, a 58-year-old woman, says her 36-year-old son has hepatitis and that he remains sick despite the thousands of dollars his family has spent on treatment. She says the same disease is prevalent among her immediate neighbors. Her son, she says, had to quit his job delivering bricks. "How can you not get sick, when the water is so polluted?" she asks.
Although they live difficult lives, the residents of Simazhuang are luckier than many residents of other Chinese cancer villages. Some of the factories responsible for contaminating their water no longer operate, and residents will be connected to Bengbu's main water supply within a few months.
OTHER CANCER VILLAGES do not enjoy such good fortune. Three years ago, Huangmengying, a village in Shenqiu Township near the city of Zhoukou in Henan province, attracted international media attention for the very high proportion of cancer cases among its residents. The village was even featured in a front-page article in the New York Times in September 2004. In 2003, the Times reported, 13 out of 17 deaths had been caused by cancer.
Water from the Shaying River, a heavily polluted tributary of the Huai, flows via ditches and canals into Huangmengying. Village residents get their drinking water from shallow wells.
Sources familiar with the situation in Shenqiu Township say little has been done in the past three years to improve water quality. To provide safe water, one person explains, the government needs to dig 460 deep wells in the township. He says authorities dug about 45 but then stopped over a year ago because of lack of funding. The wells, he says, have to reach a depth of 1,300 feet for the water to be safe.
Two activists and two academics familiar with the situation in Shenqiu tell C&EN that the local government has taken steps to prevent outsiders from learning more about what has been happening in the area lately. Foreign reporters have been banned from visiting. Local residents who have had contact with the media have been harassed by officials or have had their communications monitored. For this story, C&EN met with its sources hundreds of miles from Shenqiu.
Kenji Otsuka, an associate research fellow at the Institute of Developing Economies in Chiba, Japan, has visited Shenqiu three times. His most recent visit, last year, was as a member of a nine-person Japanese delegation. He tells C&EN that a medical doctor in their group, Masazumi Harada, was perplexed by the multitude of symptoms exhibited by the Shenqiu villagers. The team did not conduct an in-depth medical survey, but what they saw indicated that villagers were being sickened by a variety of contaminants. Otsuka is a Chinese-speaking researcher who studies Chinese environmental issues, particularly those pertaining to water management.
It's difficult for the international community to directly help Chinese villagers who are sickened by their water supply, Otsuka says, since China generally does not let foreign organizations conduct health and environmental surveys or dig wells in its countryside. He notes that when he tried to visit Shenqiu again, a local resident warned him that local officials would not let it happen. He is still looking for a chance to visit the Shenqiu area to explore ways to help the villagers.
Otsuka has tried to help residents of Shenqiu in others ways. He convinced a Beijing-based official from the Japanese Ministry of the Environment to initiate an environmental study in collaboration with local residents of Shenqiu. But the Japanese bureaucrat said he needed the approval of local officials to proceed. Otsuka and the bureaucrat have not succeeded in getting this official sanction.
Chinese officials are claiming rapid progress in their efforts to provide safer water to residents of the countryside. At a conference in Shandong province earlier this month, Li Daixin, a director general in the Ministry of Water Resources, assured the audience that China was ahead of schedule. Whereas 379 million Chinese lacked access to safe water in 2000, he said, the number had shrunk to 312 million in 2005. By 2010, about 150 million will lack clean water, a number that China had a few years earlier not expected to achieve until 2020.
Although China is making rapid progress in getting clean water to its citizens, the urgency of the task grows with equal speed because of the deterioration of surface and well water. While the number of people who lack access to clean drinking water is decreasing, more and more are getting sick from what they currently have to drink. For these people, China's industry-driven economic miracle comes at a high cost.
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