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China Steps Up Toxin Controls

Environment: New action plan acknowledges the presence of cancer clusters

by Jean-François Tremblay
March 4, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 9

Credit: How Hwee Young/EPA/Newscom
A villager in China’s Hubei province looks across a polluted river at a chemical plant.
A picture made available on 16 January 2013 shows a villager from Dongtan Village looks at the putrid river that separates his village from the Jinhuarun Chemical Industry plant in a chemical industry park in Zekou Town, Qianjiang City of Hubei Province. The villagers used to use the water and fish from the river before the arrival of the chemical plants but now the river is so polluted from discharge by the factories that they can no longer find any fish in it.
Credit: How Hwee Young/EPA/Newscom
A villager in China’s Hubei province looks across a polluted river at a chemical plant.

In a bid to reduce out-of-control environmental contamination, China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection says it will begin to monitor 58 types of chemicals before 2016. Enthusiastically greeted by environmental activists, the plan is the country’s first attempt to keep track of, and control, the toxic chemicals used by Chinese industry.

The 38-page action plan includes a stark diagnosis of the health of China’s environment. “Our country presently produces substances that are banned or strictly controlled in developed countries,” the document says. “These substances are—or may be—persistent in the environment, bio-accumulative, toxic to genes, and growth impairing; they include endocrine disruptors and compounds that cause harm to health and the environment over a long period of time.”

The environment ministry, in an unprecedented move for a Chinese government organ, acknowledges that the pollution of the country’s waterways has caused cancer clusters to emerge in parts of the country. For years, journalists in China and abroad have reported the existence of so-called cancer villages.

Although China has environmental protection laws, its main method for assessing water quality has been to measure chemical oxygen demand, an indirect test that does not reveal actual pollutants. The ministry says it will initiate new controls and tests before the end of 2015 on 58 chemicals or chemical classes.

Specific chemicals to be monitored include ethylene oxide, benzene, bisphenol A and other phenolic compounds, chlorine, cyanide, trichloroethylene, sulfuric acid, and formic acid.

Nongovernmental organizations that have been critical of China’s primitive toxic substance management are applauding the initiative. “It’s our hope that this announcement is quickly implemented and enforced—about half of China’s rivers are not suitable for domestic use, and around 20% are deemed useless even for industrial purposes,” says Yixiu Wu, campaigner for Greenpeace East Asia. “We simply cannot wait any longer.”


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