Millions of hectares of farmland and 12 mm tonnes of grain contaminated in China

Feb 11, 2011 12:00 AM

Shi Jiangtao in Beijing

The mainland's heavy metal pollution and its mounting health risks have been grossly underestimated, with millions of hectares of farmland and more than 12 mm tn of grain contaminated, state media reported recently. The latest shocking revelations about health risks in mainland rice in edition of China Economic Weekly, a magazine controlled by the People's Daily, came as another bombshell in a week that has refocused attention on the country's poor food safety record.

Up to 10 % of rice grown in China was contaminated with toxic metals such as cancer-causing cadmium, the Beijing-based Century Weekly Magazine said recently. Citing researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, China Economic Weekly said metal poisoning problems had wrought havoc in resource-rich southern and southwestern provinces, such as Yunnan , Hunan , Guangdong and Guangxi , and claimed an extremely high human toll. After years of excessive mining, many villages near mines have gained national notoriety as "cancer villages".
Potential economic losses in contaminated rice, enough to feed more than 40 million people, hit 20 bn yuan (HK$ 23.66 bn) a year,citing 2007 statistics from the Ministry of Land and Resources. The land minister at the time, Sun Wensheng, was quoted by Xinhua as warning that land pollution problems had reached an alarming level, with at least 10 % of China's 120 mm hectares of farmland contaminated by metal leaks and other pollutants. But apparently, his warning and a series of stark findings by mainland academics have yet to be taken seriously. A senior official in one of the key grain-producing provinces was quoted in the report as discouraging scientists from exposing heavy pollution problems, saying the findings were too bleak to be made public.

But metal poisoning has become widespread, with a flurry of heavy-metal pollution scandals in Hunan, Shaanxi , Jiangsu , Shandong and Guangdong hitting the headlines in recent months. More than 200 children in Anhui , aged between nine months and 16 years, were found to have been poisoned by lead discharged from nearby smelters. Official figures show that at least nine lead poisoning outbreaks occurred last year and 12 metal pollution scandals emerged in 2009. Land pollution not only poses a threat to the country's food safety, but has also become a fresh source of dissatisfaction, demonstration and unrest, with a spate of violent protests reported over metal poisoning outbreaks.
Even Premier Wen Jiabao and Environment Minister Zhou Shengxian admitted that metal poisoning has become one of the worst pollution problems facing China and they promised to start clean-up campaigns.
But experts and environmentalists have expressed disappointment over the authorities' lack of action.

The environment ministry said on its website that 14 provinces had been listed as worst- affected by heavy metal poisoning in a plan to tackle pollution in the next five years that had been approved by the State Council. But it refused to give further details, saying the plan was a national secret.

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