20080317-river like blood caused.jpg
River turned blood red from chemcial dyes
China is the world's biggest greenhouse gas emitter, number one energy user and arguably the most polluted nation on earth. It is home to some of the world’s most polluted rivers and water supplies. Two Chinese cities — Linfen, in the heart of Shanxi Province’s coal country, and Tianying, a lead mining and processing center — made the top 10 on a list of the world’s most polluted cities by the Blacksmith Institute. Three Chinese cities — Tianying, Huaxi and Wanshan — made the top 10 list for cities in the world with the worst pollution by heavy metals. Estimates are that pollution in China will only get worse as China’s 1.4 billion people get richer and buy motorbikes, cars, and air conditioners and travel on airplanes. Increases in emissions and demand for coal might make China’s air 70 percent worse by 2030, according to Deutsche Bank AG. Various studies estimate pollution costs the Chinese economy 7 percent-10 percent of GDP each year.

Studies that 60 percent of underground water is too contaminated to drink, as much as 16 percent of China's soil exceeds state pollution limits, and farming on 3.3 million hectares (8.15 million acres) of contaminated land across the country has been banned indefinitely. Ramez Naam wrote in the Slate: China is an environmental mess. Smog in Beijing is so bad it’s literally broken the air-quality index. In Shanghai, it’s at times turned the city into a scene from Blade Runner. (It almost matches the infamous Cleveland smog of the 1970s.) Meanwhile, thousands of dead pigs—cause of death not yet known—have been floating down a river that cuts through Shanghai and provides part of the region’s drinking water. More than half of China’s water is so polluted, in fact, that even treatment plants can’t make it safe to drink. And China is now responsible for almost half the world’s coal consumption. That coal burning not only contributes to climate change—it’s also saddled China with severe cases of acid rain, something the United States dealt with a generation ago. Toxic emissions are slipping into groundwater supplies. A report released in February 2009, stated that decades of heavy use of nitrogen fertilizer have contaminated groundwater supplies, increased acid rain, acidification and greenhouse emissions, The report encourages farmers to change their farming practices and reduced their dependence on synthetic nitrogen fertilizers and use alternatives such as manures and crop residues. [Source: Ramez Naam, Slate, May 8, 2013]

Pollution is getting worse but is difficult to tell by how much worse because the government generally doesn't release statistics on pollution and when it does the data is often times of dubious quality. There are lots of environmental laws on the books — at least 230 at last count — but the problem is that they are rarely enforced. Cement factories, steel mills, chemical factories, and coal-fired power plants are among the biggest polluters. Pollution from factories and power plants is rising by 9 percent a year. Pollution from vehicles is rising fast.

Pollution-Related Health Problems in China

According to the World Bank and the World Health Organization about 750,000 die every year form pollution-related ailments. One study suggested that pollution may have reduced birth weights in Beijing. The number of babies born with birth defects increased from 104.9 in 10,000 births in 2000 to 145.5 in 10,000 births in 2007. Many blame pollution. See Air Pollution and Water Pollution

Joseph Kahn and Jim Yardley wrote in the New York Times, “Pollution has made cancer China’s leading cause of death....Only 1 percent of the country’s city dwellers breath air considered safe.” In industrial cities people rarely see the sun; children become sickened by lead poisoning. Coastal areas and even lakes suffer from red tides; rivers emit fumes that make people feel sick and gives them cancer.

In March 2006, 130 people were hospitalized outside the city of Ningbo in Zhejiang Province in eastern China following a leak of poisonous gas from a chemical plant. Villagers reported seeing a cloud of gas floating across farmland killing crops and poultry and several days later began experiencing dizziness, sore throats, chest pains and skin irritation. In June 2008, six people were killed and 28 fell ill from toxic gas — hydrogen sulfide — leaking from a fertilizer plant in Kunming in Yunnan Province southwest China.

In May 2009, over 1,000 people that lived around the Jilin Chemical Fibre Group plant in Jilin city in northwest China complained of headaches, nausea and other illnesses. A total of 161 were hospitalized. In September 2009, chemicals from a plastics factory disposed of in an illegal site was blamed for killing three and injuring 17, including four children who played near the site, in the industrial city of Dongynag in Zhejiang Province. Most of the deaths were attributed to contamination by the industrial chemical dinitrophenol.

A study by researchers at Peking University and Oregon State University suggest that if pollution cutbacks implement during the 2008 Olympics were kept in place residents of Beijing would have their risk of getting lung cancer cut in half and 10,000 fewer people would get the disease. The study focused on PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) that arrive from coal-burning, wood stoves and cars.

Pollution Linked to Lower Life Expectancy in Northern China

Life expectancy is 5.5 years lower in northern China than in the south because of heavy air pollution, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggested. The study examined air quality readings collected in 90 Chinese cities from 1981 to 2000, and compared them with mortality data collected from 145 locations from 1991 to 2000. Julie Makinen wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “ The researchers found that a seemingly arbitrary Mao-era economic policy on coal-fired boilers for winter heating created dramatic differences in air quality within China. North of the Huai River, the government provided free coal, while people to the south were essentially denied central heat. This policy essentially created two groups that could be compared with each other, allowing the impact of burning coal on air quality – and on health – to be isolated and quantified. [Source: Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times, July 8, 2013]

Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times, ““The study is the first measuring this kind of impact that relies purely on data collected within China. Its conclusions are based on analyses of population groups living in areas north and south of the Huai River. The Chinese government has for years maintained a policy of free coal for boilers to generate winter heating north of the river, which runs parallel to and between the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers. That policy and the ubiquity of northern coal-fired factories have contributed to the vast gap between the coal pollutants emitted in north and south. Howard Frumkin, dean of the School of Public Health at the University of Washington, said a “strong point” of the study was its basis in the “natural experiment” resulting from China’s disparate coal policies. “The results are biologically plausible, and consistent with previous research,” he said. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, July 8, 2013]

“For every additional 100 micrograms of particulate matter per cubic meter above the average pollution levels in the south, the life expectancy at birth drops by three years, the researchers found. "This adds to the growing mountain of evidence of the heavy cost of China’s pollution,” said Alex L. Wang, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies Chinese environmental policies. “Other studies have shown significant near-term harms, in the form of illness, lost work days and even risks to children beginning in utero. This study suggests that the long-term harms of coal pollution might be worse than we thought.”

Infertility and "Ugly Sperm" in China Linked to Pollution

China's pollution is believed to be a factor in a growing national infertility crisis, leading rich Chinese to seek out working-class American women to be their surrogate mothers. China's infertility rates rose to 12.5 percent of all adults in China of child-bearing age in 2013. In 1993, the level was 3 percent, Equally worryingly is that sperm counts of Chinese men have dropped by 80 percent in 80 years. Across China, over 40 million people have been diagnosed as infertile. A national study of air pollution and how it affects fertility is being conducted in China. The Chinese Academy of Sciences is looking into the effects of pollutants such as arsenic, plastic solvents and melamine on male infertility. IB Times reported: “While some experts believe that 70 percent of female infertility and 50 percent of male infertility are the result of unhealthy lifestyles, others believe that environmental factors may also play a role. "New chemicals appear in our lives every day, and the problem is that we don't know if these new chemicals will pose risks to our health," Zhang Jun, lead researcher of the infertility study told the South China Morning Post. "So our study will be significant in providing evidence to prove if these chemicals are harmful. And based on that we can make our policies prevent any hazards from such environmental pollution."” [Source: Fiona Keating, IB Times, February 1, 2014 /+/

In November 2013, the Wall Street Journal reported: “In The fifty shades of gray hovering above China’s cities could be sapping the country’s men of their virility. That’s the message from one Chinese newspaper website citing findings from a sperm bank in Shanghai that monitored samples over a decade and found two-thirds were “affected” to various degrees by environmental factors. [Source: Wall Street Journal, November 7, 2013 ==]

“Potentially a source of couples’ bedroom disputes, the report is one of two this week feeding a frenzy of speculation on the Chinese Internet about how the country’s notorious pollution impacts reproductive health. Sperm can grow to be “ugly” and “not able to swim,” the head of the sperm bank, Li Zheng, told the Shanghai Morning Post (in Chinese), a newspaper owned by the military-run Liberation Daily. ==

“The discussion first erupted after a little known publication called the China Business Review ran a headline bound to get attention in a country more obsessed than most with children: “Smog Can Impact Humans’ Reproductive Ability and Immune System.” Below, the newspaper showed a rendering of how dust particles harm different organs in the human body. Both articles cite a new “green paper” on climate change issued by the China Meteorological Administration and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. As one might expect, the report is mostly concerned with minimizing the carbon footprint of China’s urbanizing population, though it does making a passing mention, on page 248, of the negative effects on human health of air pollution. Particulate matter can “influence reproductive abilities,” it says. ==

“While neither the green paper nor the initial China Business Review story offered any data to support their claims, that hardly seemed to matter to the country’s microbloggers, who have long expected the worse from the air they breathe.China’s official news agency Xinhua reported a doctor saying that an eight-year old girl from the eastern province of Jiangsu had contracted lung cancer from prolonged exposure to harmful particles having lived near a dusty street. ==

“Previous studies have shown exposure to high levels of pollution can reduce the success rate of in vitro fertilization and drawn a link between toxic air and reduced fertility in men. In September, local media reported that scientists at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Nanjing Medical University and Zhejiang University, the Chinese Academy of Sciences would conduct a national research study in 2014 to examine how toxins in the environment, including pollution, impact women trying to give birth. ==

“Mr. Li from the Shanghai sperm bank says it has been facing a lack of qualified sperm donors and quality sperm in the last decade, and that only one-third of its sperm meets World Health Organization standards, according to the report in the Shanghai Morning post. A spokesperson at Ruijin Hospital, which houses the sperm bank, said Mr. Li was not available for comment. Readers of the China Business Review article were far from reticent. The post elicited 441 comments, including one that sardonically proffered a silver lining: “Yes! No need to use condoms anymore.”

Pollution and Deformed Babies in China

Pollution is also blamed for the increase in the number of deformed children in places where pollution levels are high. Babies born with deformities such as cleft palates, neural tube defects, congenital heart disease, water on the brain, and extra fingers and toes is up 6 percent a year nationwide — and 40 percent between 2001 and 2006 — with rates much higher in place like the major coal-mining areas of Shanxi Province. Shanxi is home to the world’s three most polluted cities. In addition to coal mining there is pollution from coke, steel and chemical industries. It also lead the world in the incidents of cleft palates and extra fingers among babies. Some parents whose children are born with extra toes cut them off so it is easier to buy shoes.

The river that flows through the village of Shangba in Guangdong Province is polluted by heavy metals. It varies in color from murky white to bright orange and is so viscous that it barely moves when winds blow on it. One villager told AP, “All the fish died, even chickens and ducks that drank the water died. If you put your leg in the water, you’ll get rashes and a terrible itch...Last years alone, six people in our villages died from cancer, and they were in their 30s and 40s.” Two girls, who often played in the river died at the ages of 12 and 18 from kidney and stomach cancer, which are rare among young people.

The source of much of the pollution is the state-owned Daboshan mine, which produces huge piles of tailing discarded next to rice fields and dumps large amounts of cadmium, a known carcinogen, as well as lead, zinc, indium and other metals into water supplies. Tests have shown high levels of cadmium and zinc in the drinking water and the rice. Stomach, liver kidney and colon cancer account for 85 percent of the cancers acquired by villagers.

Publicity on Shangba’s plight convinced the government to help foot the bill for a new reservoir and water system for the town. Liangqiao is a village contaminated by the same mine. The local river has a reddish color. Since the late 1990s cancer has caused two thirds of the deaths in the village. One villager there told Time, “We have to use the polluted water to irrigate our fields, since we don’t have any money to start a water project. We know very well that we are being poisoned by eating the grain. What more can we do? We can’t just wait to starve to death.”

247 Cancer Villages in China

Increases in cancer rates of 19 percent in urban areas and 23 percent in rural area have been blamed on air and water pollution. The most awful and shameful examples of how bad China’s pollution has become are the so-called cancer villages, where pollution in the water and air is blamed for surges in cancer rates. One such place is Yangqiao, a village of Yancheng City in Jiangsu Province in the wetlands of southeastern China. It has been so fouled by the waste from chemical plants, the air is acrid and make people dizzy and yellow waste water seeps into irrigation ditches, producing sick dogs, dead fish, stunted crops and high cancer rates.

Josh Chin and Brian Spegele wrote in the Wall Street Journal, In January 2013 “Xinhua highlighted the dangers of hazardous chemical waste in rural areas by profiling Zekou, described by environmentalists as a "cancer village" in the central province of Hubei. Residents blame a nearby industrial park for more than 60 recent cancer-related deaths, most of them of people under the age of 50. “The Ministry of Environmental Protection publicly acknowledged the existence of such "cancer villages"—which have unusually high rates of cancer and, according to nongovernmental organizations and researchers, number in the hundreds—for the first time a month later. In March, state media reported that 168 villagers who live near a battery factory in the eastern province of Zhejiang were discovered to have elevated levels of lead in their blood, the latest in a stream of rural lead-poisoning cases tied to battery and smelting facilities. [Source: by Josh Chin and Brian Spegele, Wall Street Journal, July 27, 2013]

In 2013 the Ministry of Environmental Protection acknowledged the problem of “cancer villages” for the first time, Xu Chi wrote in the Shanghai Daily, “China has more than 247 "cancer villages" throughout the mainland, according to a map that is being widely circulated on the Internet. The map caught the public's attention after the Ministry of Environmental Protection admitted earlier this month the existence of such villages and said pollution was to blame for high cancer rates among their residents. The map was said to have been drawn up by a Chinese university student after research into data and media reports. Although such villages are found in around 27 regions, many of them are located in central Henan and eastern Jiangsu provinces. The number of such villages is a sharp increase compared to another widely circulated map published by social activist Deng Fei several years ago. Deng identified just over 100 "cancer villages." [Source: Xu Chi, Shanghai Daily, February 25, 2013]

In Yangqiao more than 20 villagers have been reported as dying of cancer, mainly from lung and esophageal cancers, from 2001 to 2004. The pollution in the air was so bad, it was reported, that villagers had to cover their mouths and noses with wet towels when sleeping. In Dongjin Village in the same city, nearly 100 villagers were said to have died of cancer from 2001 to 2006 as the result of pollution caused by a chemical company. The firm offered 70 yuan (US$11) to each villager as "subsidy" after it was sued by victims, China Business Journal reported. In a village in Henan, a total of 79 villagers died of cancer in four years after a growing number of paper manufacturing factories discharged industrial waste into river, turning it as black as ink.

The environmental ministry said China was still producing and using toxic chemicals which were banned in some developed countries because of their threat to human health and the environment. "Various chemicals have been detected in some rivers, lakes and inshore waters, as well as in animals and human bodies in recent years," the ministry said. "Toxic chemicals have caused several environment emergencies linking to water and air pollution. Drinking water crises hit many regions while 'cancer villages' and other severe cases of health and social problems emerged in some other regions," the ministry said.

Polluted Agricultural Areas in China

Josh Chin and Brian Spegele wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “China's Bad Earth Industrialization has turned much of the Chinese countryside into an environmental disaster zone, threatening not only the food supply but the legitimacy of the regime itself. In Dapu, a rain-drenched rural outpost in the heart of China's grain basket, a farmer grows crops that she wouldn't dare to eat. A state-backed chemicals factory next to her farm dumps wastewater directly into the local irrigation pond, she says, and turns it a florescent blue reminiscent of antifreeze. After walking around in the rice paddies, some farmers here have developed unexplained blisters on their feet. [Source: by Josh Chin and Brian Spegele, Wall Street Journal, July 27, 2013 /=/]

"Nothing comes from these plants," says the farmer, pointing past the irrigation pond to a handful of stunted rice shoots. She grows the rice, which can't be sold because of its low quality, only in order to qualify for payments made by the factory owners to compensate for polluting the area. But the amount is only a fraction of what she used to earn when the land was healthy, she says. The plants look alive, "but they're actually dead inside." /=/

“The experiences of these farmers in Dapu, in central China's Hunan province, highlight an emerging and critical front in China's intensifying battle with pollution. Estimates from state-affiliated researchers say that anywhere between 8 percent and 20 percent of China's arable land, some 25 to 60 million acres, may now be contaminated with heavy metals. A loss of even 5 percent could be disastrous, taking China below the "red line" of 296 million acres of arable land that are currently needed, according to the government, to feed the country's 1.35 billion people. Criticism even came from the Communist Party's flagship paper, People's Daily, which posted a message to its microblog that read: "Covering this up only makes people think: I'm being lied to." /=/

Cadmium-Tainted Rice

In March 2013, authorities southern China's Guangdong province revealed that eight out of 18 samples in a survey of local rice supplies had been found to contain excessive levels of cadmium, a heavy metal that can damage the kidneys and cause severe bone pain. Josh Chin and Brian Spegele wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “Officials didn't say where the cadmium came from, though the rice itself was grown in nearby Hunan province, they said. Cadmium is generally associated with mining and the smelting of metals like zinc and lead, as well as battery manufacturing, all of which are common in Hunan. [Source: by Josh Chin and Brian Spegele, Wall Street Journal, July 27, 2013 /=/]

“Social media users expressed anger and dismissed two subsequent provincewide investigations that showed excessive levels of cadmium in only 5.8 percent and 1.4 percent of rice supplies. "First water, then the air we breathe, and now the earth. How can people still survive?" wrote one user on Sina Weibo, a popular Twitter-like microblogging service. "I suppose we can always move abroad or to outer space." /=/

"Chinese people have a very deep connection to rice," adds Liu Jianqiang, a former investigative reporter who now serves as the Beijing-based editor of China Dialogue, a nonprofit media organization that tracks environmental issues. "If you discover some vegetable or fruit is poisoned, you can say 'I won't eat it.' But rice you can't avoid." /=/

“It is difficult to say how extensive Hunan's cadmium problem is, just as it is hard to pinpoint exactly where the cadmium in any batch of tainted rice comes from. In one of a handful of small studies done on heavy-metal pollution in the area, published in 2008, Nanjing Agricultural University professor Pan Gengxing found 60 percent of rice bought in markets in a number of southern provinces, including Hunan, contained cadmium in excess of China's national standards. /=/

That survey, however, was based on only 61 samples. Also, China's maximum allowable cadmium standard, 0.20 milligrams per kilogram of rice, is twice as strict as the widely used international standard. Studies have shown that Hunan rice is also polluted with excessive arsenic and lead, and that some of the rice has made it into markets.

Causes of Polluted Agricultural Areas in China

Josh Chin and Brian Spegele wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “Rural China's toxic turn is largely a consequence of two trends, say environmental researchers: the expansion of polluting industries into remote areas a safe distance from population centers, and heavy use of chemical fertilizers to meet the country's mounting food needs. Both changes have been driven by the rapid pace of urbanization in a country that in 2012, for the first time in its long history, had more people living in cities than outside of them. [Source: by Josh Chin and Brian Spegele, Wall Street Journal, July 27, 2013 /=/]

“China has long sought to industrialize its countryside, dating to Mao's disastrous Great Leap Forward beginning in 1958, when he sought rapid industrialization by urging peasants to set up backyard steel furnaces at the expense of agricultural output. The cumulative impact of decades of building up rural industry is now taking an environmental toll, particularly as industrial growth surges forward in China's breadbasket. In the once agrarian provinces of Hunan and Hubei, industrial activity rose more than threefold from 2007 to 2011, far outpacing industrial growth in powerhouse Guangdong. /=/

“In some cases, factories are moving to the countryside to take advantage of cheaper land, often made available with the help of local officials who want to boost growth, environmental researchers say. In other cases, urban leaders want factories to move out of crowded cities. The ensuing problems of rural pollution are exacerbated by the fact that many small-town governments have less capacity to properly regulate complex industrial activities than their counterparts in big cities, experts say. /=/

And then there are the pressures being placed on China's farmland by the overuse of chemical fertilizers. Mr. Zhuang, of the environment ministry, said at his recent news conference that only 35 percent of the fertilizer used in China was being properly absorbed by crops. The remaining 65 percent, he said, was being discharged as pollution that was seriously tainting China's farmland. Runoff of nitrogen fertilizer, among the most widely-used varieties in China, can contaminate water sources and lead to soil acidification, soil erosion and lower crop yields. "If things carry on this way, the soil will be unable to bear it, the environment unable to bear it. It's a real problem," said Mr. Zhuang. Between 2000 and 2011, the use of chemical fertilizer—pushed by the country's exploding demand for staples such as rice—rose 38 percent, to more than 57 million tons a year, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. Such growth far outpaced the growth of total irrigated farmland, which rose only about 15 percent during the same period. /=/

“Today, many of the country's rural dilemmas are most visible in Hunan province, the source of the cadmium-tainted rice discovered in Guangzhou. China's top rice producer, Hunan grew nearly 26 million tons of unmilled rice, almost 13 percent of China's total, in 2011. “In recent decades, however, Hunan has also become one of the country's top five producers of nonferrous metals like copper and lead, with mines and smelters that accounted for 7.5 percent of the country's nonferrous metals in 2012, according to Wall Street Journal calculations based on provincial and national statistics. "You have farms next to mountains where mining is happening, and not enough attention is placed on environmental protection," says Chen Nengchang, a soil remediation expert with the Guangdong Institute of Environmental and Soil Sciences. But it is difficult to say how extensive Hunan's cadmium problem is, just as it is hard to pinpoint exactly where the cadmium in any batch of tainted rice comes from./=/

Football-Field-Size Toxic Waste Dump and Mass Animal Death

In April 2013, Xinhua reported: “Local authorities said that pigs and dogs that were found dead in a village in Central China's Henan province died from respiratory failure due to inhaling toxic gas. A total of 410 pigs and 122 dogs were found dead in the village of Dongtun in the city of Yanshi. The No.1 Hospital affiliated with the Henan University of Science and Technology said test results showed that the animals died from respiratory failure. A local medical manufacturing plant has been under investigation for allegedly causing toxic gas leaks. However, the gas that killed the animals has not been identified and it is unknown whether the plant had any part in their deaths.Some villagers claimed that the factory has been emitting a strong odor for more than ten years. They said the smell was particularly strong Monday morning.Test results from local environmental authorities indicate that the area's air and drinking water are clean. [Source: Xinhua, April 19, 2013]

On a toxic dump near Beijing, Leo Lewis wrote in The Times, “Uniformed guards watch the road junctions. Official cars lurk at the bottom of country lanes. Villagers plead ignorance. Journalists have been banned. The secret of Bingmaying would be safe were it not for the pervasive, eye-stinging stench and the endless procession of reeking lorries.This village north east of Beijing sits in a mountainous beauty spot, but behind it lies an illegal dump the size of a football pitch and as high as a four-storey building. “Nobody knows when the dump started operating, but now the air is truly terrible,” one villager said. [Source: Leo Lewis, The Times, February 27, 2013]

However, the most immediate worry is water contamination. The dump, recently revealed by environmental activists, is upstream of the Miyun reservoir, which provides two thirds of the tap water for Beijing’s 20 million residents. In Bingmaying, a man with a “public security” armband, drafted in to help to oversee the rubbish removal, said: “Of course I am worried about health. Everyone is. It is dry now, but in the rainy season the water will wash the poisons from the dump into the soil.”

Local officials, fearing repercussions for allowing the illegal dump to grow — and the attentions of water inspectors — are scrambling to undo the environmental crime. Over the past 48 hours, the usual flow of rubbish from Beijing and Hebei into Bingmaying has stopped. Instead, lorries roar down the village’s single street rushing foetid loads away from the site to a location no one dares to disclose. But the dump still dominates, and the soil, whisper residents, has already absorbed unspeakable toxins.

Locals fear that Bingmaying will join China’s growing list of 200 “cancer villages”, hotspots caused by pollution. Some claim that death rates from lung and liver cancer in this village have soared, but the true state of the soil around Bingmaying may never be revealed.Beijing said that the results of a national survey of ground pollution would remain unpublished. In the years since the assessment began in 2006, environmental degradation — especially when there are implied links to corruption — has become an explosive source of public unrest. But the status of China’s soil is a state secret.

Mercury Pollution in China

China now emits more mercury than the United States, India, and Europe combined. Mercury is a common heavy metal, ubiquitous in solid material on the earth’s surface. David Kirby wrote in Discover magazine, “China is full of the two biggest contributors to human-generated mercury, metal smelting and coal combustion. Smelting facilities heat metal ores to eliminate contaminants and extract the desired metal, such as zinc, lead, copper, or gold. Unfortunately, one of the consistent contaminants is mercury, and the heating process allows it to escape into the atmosphere in gaseous form. Similarly, coal contains trace amounts of mercury, which is set free during combustion at power plants. While it is trapped it is of little consequence to human health. But whenever metal is smelted or coal is burned, some mercury is released. It gets into the food chain and diffuses deep into the ocean. It eventually finds its way into fish, rice, vegetables, and fruit. [Source: David Kirby, Discover magazine, March 18, 2011]

“When inorganic mercury (whether from industry or nature) gets into wet soil or a waterway, sulfate-reducing bacteria begin incorporating it into an organic and far more absorbable compound called methylmercury. As microorganisms consume the methylmercury, the metal accumulates and migrates up the food chain; that is why the largest predator fish (sharks and swordfish, for example) typically have the highest concentrations. Nine-tenths of the mercury found in Americans’ blood is the methyl form, and most comes from fish, especially Pacific fish. About 40 percent of all mercury exposure in the United States comes from Pacific tuna that has been touched by pollution.”

In pregnant women, methylmercury can cross the placenta and negatively affect fetal brain development. Other pollutants that the fetus is exposed to can also cause toxic effects, “potentially leading to neurological, immunological, and other disorders,” says Harvard epidemiologist Philippe Grandjean, a leading authority on the risks associated with chemical exposure during early development. Prenatal exposure to mercury and other pollutants can lead to lower iq in children — even at today’s lower levels, achieved in the United States after lead paint and leaded gasoline were banned.

Lead Poisoning in China

China is the world’s leading producer and consumer of lead. There have been numerous cases of mass lead poisoning — including reports of severe lead poisoning in Hunan, Henan, Yunnan and Shanxii Provinces — along with instances in which local governments tried to cover them up. Sharon Lafraniere wrote in the New York Times in June 2011, “In the past two and a half years, thousands of workers, villagers and children in at least 9 of mainland China’s 31 province-level regions have been found to be suffering from toxic levels of lead exposure...The cases underscore a pattern of government neglect seen in industry after industry as China strives for headlong growth with only embryonic safeguards.” [Source: Sharon Lafraniere, New York Times, June 15, 2011]

A report by Human Rights Watch released in June 2011 states that some local officials have reacted to mass poisonings by arbitrarily limiting lead testing, withholding and possibly manipulating test results, denying proper treatment to children and adults and trying to silence parents and activists. “What we are trying to underscore is how little has been done to address the massive impact of lead pollution in China,” Joe Amon, the organization’s health and human rights director, told the New York Times. “It really has affected a whole generation of kids.”

“In more developed nations, where lead pollution has been tightly regulated for decades, a pattern of lead poisoning like China’s would most likely be deemed a public-health emergency. Lead poisoning can damage the nervous, muscular and reproductive systems. High levels can damage the brain, kidney, liver, nerves and stomach and, in extreme cases, cause death. Children are particularly susceptible because they absorb lead more easily than adults.” “No blood lead level has been found to be safe for a child,” Dr. Mary Jean Brown, chief of the lead poisoning prevention branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told the New York Times.

“Chasing the political dividends of economic development, local officials regularly overlook environmental contamination, worker safety and dangers to public health until forced to confront them. The few published studies point to a huge problem. One 2001 research paper called lead poisoning one of the most common pediatric health problems in China. A 2006 review of existing data suggested that one-third of Chinese children suffer from elevated blood lead levels.”

Most lead poisoning is caused by pollution from battery factories and metal smelters. In recent years many new factories have opened that produce lead-acid batteries for electric bikes, motorcycles and cars. The industry has grown by 20 percent a year for the past five or six years, and is expected to expand further, according to Wang Jingzhong, vice director of the China Battery Industry Association. China now has some 2,000 factories and 1,000 battery-recycling plants. For regulators, Mr. Wang said, “It is a chaotic situation.” [Source: Sharon Lafraniere, New York Times, June 15, 2011]

Enforcement is spotty at best. Shen Yulin, the environmental protection director for Deqing County in Zhejiang Province, where several battery factories are located, said 65 inspectors were responsible for a region of nearly 400 square miles, with more than 2,000 factories.

Cases of Lead Poisoning in China

In March 2010 more reports of lead poisoning came from Hunan Province, this time from Guiyang County, where more than 200 people were diagnosed with excessive levels of lead in their blood. Guiyang is adjacent to another county, were 250 people were reported to have excessive lead in their blood in 2009. The lead in Guiyang is believed to have come from a polluting factory.

In villages around Jiyuan, Henan Province, headquarters of the Henan Yugang Gold and Lead Co., the largest lead producer in Asia, children gave chronic diarrhea and nosebleeds and look shockingly skinny; people in their 30s and 40s show signs of dementia; trees drop their leaves year round; the corn crop is stunted; and piglets are stillborn. The problems is severe enough that the government has acknowledged it to some degree and is helping to evacuate thousands of residents from the area. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times]

One Jiyang villager, who’s son had abnormally high lead levels in his blood and who lives about half a mile from a lead factory, told the Los Angeles Times, “When they let out the lead exhaust at night, there is this yellow smoke streaking the sky and a sick smell, kind of sweet,” Henan Yugang Gold and Lead, who factories mainly supply lead for car batteries, is not seen as a villain though. It provides relatively well-paying jobs in the area and has funded public buildings and sports teams. It suspended operations at a number of its factories when accusations about lead poisoning were made.

In September 2009, it was revealed that 121 children living near a battery plant in Fujian Province suffered from lead poisoning. Other clusters of leading poisoning have been found in other industrial areas. A hospital in Kunming found that 200 out of 1,000 children living near an industrial park there had elevated levels of lead in their blood according to the China Daily. In Shaanxi Province 615 out 731 children in two villages near the Dongling lead and Zinc smelter tested positive for lead poisoning. Parents there stormed the smelter.

In Hunan Province’s Wenping township 15 parents were detained for their involvement in a violent protest over pollution from a manganese processing factory that left 1,300 local children with lead poisoning. The parents were accused of having links to the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement.

The Jinglian Manganese Smelting Plant in the city of Wugan opened in May 2008. Villagers began suspecting something was amiss there when children became easily susceptible to fevers and colds. One village woman told Xinhua, “When I took my sons to the hospital the doctor asked if we lived near a heavy metal plant. We suspected the manganese smelter...was to blame.” Her two sons had 184 milligrams and 198 milligrams of lead, respectively, in each liter of blood. Normal ranges are between 0 and 100 milligrams. Executives at the plant and employees at the environmental agency that approved the plant were investigated for negligence.

Children Poisoned by Lead and Attempts to Cover It Up

In January 2011, it was revealed a lead factories in Huaining County in Anhui Province sickened more than 200 children with lead poisoning. Twenty children need hospitalization. Testing of 307 children found that 228 of them had high levels of lead in their blood. An environmental official in Huaining was suspended. Xinhua said the factories just across the street from people’s home despite regulations that required them to be at least 500 meters from residential areas.

Sharon Lafraniere wrote in the New York Times, “Near Jiyuan City, in Henan Province, nearly 1,000 children from 10 villages were found to have elevated blood lead levels in 2009. Government officials ordered the children treated, families relocated and the smelters cleaned up. But a visitor there in 2011 found children still playing in the streets of one village literally in the shadow of a privately-owned lead smelter that nightly belches plumes of dark smoke. In interviews, their parents and grandparents said that local hospitals now refuse to administer new blood lead level tests, even if the families pay out of their own pockets.” [Source: Sharon Lafraniere, New York Times, June 15, 2011]

“The children are not healthy. We don’t know how sick they are, and we can’t find out,” a 66-year-old villager told the New York Times. His two grandsons were found to have blood lead levels two and three times above the norm when tested in 2009. Local officials appeared determined to suppress such complaints. Within a few hours of a visitor’s arrival this month, Jiyuan City’s propaganda chief appeared with three carloads of plainclothes officers, bringing all reporting and interviewing to a screeching halt.

Near Suji battery factory in Zhejiang Province test showed 53 children and 120 adults suffered from excessive lead level. Local officials told residents: “Whoever makes noise will not receive compensation or medical treatment.” Migrant workers and their families were also left out of the program, villagers said. Yang Fufen, 40, said her 2-year-old son tested at more than three times the allowable blood lead level in March, but has received no medical attention, apparently because her legal residence is elsewhere.

Children Poisoned by Lead from a Battery Factory

Sharon Lafraniere wrote in the New York Times, “At Mengxi village in Zhejiang Province 233 adults and 99 children were found to have concentrations of lead in their blood, up to seven times the level deemed safe by the Chinese government. One of them was 3-year-old Han Tiantian, who lived just across the road from the the Zhejiang Haijiu Battery Factory, a maker of lead-acid batteries for motorcycles and electric bikes. Her father, Han Zongyuan, a factory worker, said he learned in March that she had absorbed enough lead to irreversibly diminish her intellectual capacity and harm her nervous system. [Source: Sharon Lafraniere, New York Times, June 15, 2011]

“At the moment I heard the doctor say that, my heart was shattered,” Mr. Han said in an interview last week. “We wanted this child to have everything. That’s why we worked this hard. That’s why we poisoned ourselves at this factory. Now it turns out the child is poisoned too. I have no words to describe how I feel.” Six-year-old Liu Kaifang, another victim, drinks his daily vial of calcium and zinc solution -- the only medication the local hospital prescribed scores of children in the area found to have high lead levels in their blood.

“The Haijiu Battery Factory, which exports to the United States, regulation of lead emissions was not so much lax as nonexistent,” Lafraniere wrote. “The factory’s opening in 2005 brought more than 1,000 jobs. Local authorities allowed the plant to expand to within a rice paddy of the village. They also ignored the breakdown of ventilation equipment and the building of a hostel for workers and their spouses and children on factory grounds. Workers say managers simply slowed down production lines when inspectors came. One worker said he had watched a supervisor cover a device that tests for lead emissions in the air with his cap, then whisk the inspectors away for tea.”

It did not take long for problems to surface. Workers said they repeatedly had tested above the occupational limit for blood lead levels and were sent to the local hospital, where drugs were injected intravenously to reduce the level and toxicity of lead in their bodies. Zhou Zuyin, 42, said he was hospitalized for treatment of lead poisoning every year for four years, returning each time to his job of smoothing the edges of lead sheets. Even after a test revealed liver damage, he said, “The factory said it was normal.” He said his biggest worry now is his 13-year-old son’s health. A blood test showed the boy had nearly double what China considers a safe lead level. “He is getting more and more scared,” Mr. Zhou said. “I don’t know what to say to him. I just feel totally powerless.”

Anger Over Children Poisoned by Lead from a Battery Factory

Sharon Lafraniere wrote in the New York Times, in May 2011 when “news had spread that workers and villagers had been poisoned by lead emissions from the factory, which had operated for six years despite flagrant environmental violations, a mob of more than 200 people gathered in this tiny eastern China village at the entrance to the Zhejiang Haijiu Battery Factory.... They shouldered through an outer brick wall, swept into the factory office and, in an outpouring of pure fury, smashed the cabinets, desks and computers inside.” [Source: Sharon Lafraniere, New York Times, June 15, 2011]

Haijiu had breezed through six years of inspections, even though many workers say they were repeatedly hospitalized for lead poisoning. Only after the protest did authorities criticize the plant for a host of violations and order the plant closed and production lines razed. At a press conference after the actions were taken, Li Ganjie, the vice minister for environmental protection, said that every suspected case of lead poisoning is fully investigated and that “the people involved, whether they are children or adults, are well-tested and treated.”

Zhao Guogeng, vice president of Zhejiang Haijiu Battery Co., said the company is covering the medical bills of lead victims. Authorities said the factory’s legal representative has been arrested and eight officials disciplined. “This will never happen again,” Zhang Linhua, spokesman for Deqing County, declared. Maybe not there.

But not three days later came a dispatch from a town 55 miles southeast of Mengxi Village: 103 children and 26 adults were found to be severely poisoned by lead pollution from tinfoil processing plants, according to China’s official Xinhua news agency. Moderately poisoned: 494. The victims in the latest case were workers and their children in 25 family-run tinfoil processing workshops in Yangxunqiao town in Zhejiang province in eastern China. Lead is used in tinfoil processing and Xinhua said the workers and their families were constantly exposed to lead materials.

500 Kids Sicken by Toxic Soil at a Chinese School

In April 2016, it was reported that almost 500 students became sick, some with cancer, at a school built near recently shut chemical plants in eastern China. According to Associated Press: “State broadcaster CCTV said in a report that high concentrations of some toxic chemicals may have caused cases of lymphoma and leukemia among students at the Foreign Languages School in the city of Changzhou, about 170 kilometers (105 miles) northwest of Shanghai. [Source: Gerry Shih, Associated Press, April 18, 2016]

“The case also underscored the severity of China's groundwater pollution — an issue overshadowed by the country's notorious air quality problems — just one week after the Ministry of Water Resources published findings showing that more than 80 percent of water in shallow groundwater wells in China is unfit for human consumption. The Changzhou school with more than 2,000 students is adjacent to sites once occupied by Changlong, a chemical company that was previously fined by provincial regulators for environmental violations. CCTV's investigative segment quoted a whistleblower who said workers dumped or buried chemical waste and many employees had contracted skin diseases themselves. One environmental assessment of soil at the site found levels of the toxic chemical chlorobenzene of nearly 95,000 times the national limit, while in another instance, testing was still ongoing as construction of the school began, resulting in "in a classic case of 'build first, assess later,'" CCTV said.

According to Greenpeace East Asia the students became sick with illnesses ranging from bronchitis and eczema, to abnormalities in their blood and thyroid and in a few chilling cases, leukemia. Levels of Chlorobenzene, a toxic solvent that has been linked to liver and kidney problems, measured at close to 100,000 times what is considered safe. This is far from an isolated case: Five days after the Changzhou incident was exposed, a chemical factory in the same province was ordered to shut down operations after 20 students fell sick; on the same day, a chemical blaze at a storage facility at the Yangtze River raged for 16 hours. One 26 year old firefighter lost his life and 15,000 nearby residents, not to mention. valuable drinking resources, have been left at risk of potential contamination. [Source: Cheng Qian,Greenpeace East Asia, | April 30, 2016]

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Last updated June 2022

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