Pollution concerns grow alongside China’s economy

Oct 24, 2011 12:00 AM

Over the past few years, growing environmental pressure in China has forced the country to finally look into such issues as people residing near heavy industrial clusters continue to suffer from air, water and soil contamination.
At the ninth “Science and Technological Week” held by the Guangdong Provincial Association for Science and Technology earlier this month, Wang Xiwen, an expert from the Chinese Academy of Engineering, gave a lecture about the seriousness of food security in China.

According to Wang, heavy metal pollution is currently endangering some 300 mm acres of farmland across China, equal to roughly one-sixth of all cropland in the country. Only 11 % of farmland in Guangdong Province is considered to be free from contamination.
“The pollution in coastal regions is much heavier,” Wang said. “The metals mercury, cadmium and copper are the main contaminants. Now the heavy metal contamination is growing in the same speed as our economic development, which means the more our country is developed, the more dangerous our environment will be, especially in the Zhejiang, Jiangsu, Guangdong and Liaoning provinces. In addition, the soil pollution in some inland provinces has been spreading gradually, for example, the Chang-Zhu-Tan (Changsha-Zhuzhou-Xiangtan) city cluster in Hunan Province is the most advanced area in terms of economic development in the province, while the area appears to have the most severe soil contamination as well.”

Statistics show that in Guangdong Province 89 % of the farmland has already been contaminated, with 77 % considered lightly contaminated and 12 % classified as heavily polluted. The soil contamination in the lower Pearl River Delta area is a result of frequent industrial activities, while the pollution in northern Guangdong Province has been caused mainly by mining activities. Huge amounts of heavy metals flow into rivers and lakes in the process of washing mineral ore.
In Hunan Province, the Research and Development Department of the local National Land and Resources Bureau has tracked the health records of some 70,000 individuals over the last 25 years. The records show that the number of people who suffer from osteocarcinoma (known as bone cancer) and other bone diseases such as osteoporosis have gone up. In the severely contaminated Zhuzhou City, it was discovered that the cadmium content of local residents was two to five times higher than normal.

China’s Hetao District is a region in the upper reaches of the Yellow River in north-western China that includes the Yinchuan Plain, the Ordos Plateau, as well as the Loess Plateau and forms parts of Shaanxi, Ningxia, and Inner Mongolia.
The region has been known for its low quality underground water with high arsenic and fluorine content. There are 300,000 people facing the risk of arsenic poisoning, while 2,000 people have already been contaminated in the region, reports said.

In Wuyuan County of Bayannur, a city in western Inner Mongolia, cancer has become the leading cause of mortality. There’s also an area between Horinger County and Togtoh County -- both of which are under jurisdiction of the Inner Mongolian capital city Hohhot -- where the underground water is contaminated heavily by fluorine. Many villagers in the region have darkened teeth and suffer from various bone diseases.
Horinger County is best known for the Mengniu Diary Company -- one of China’s main dairy manufacturers.

Around one of the mines of the Baotou Iron and Steel Group, a state-owned steel company in Inner Mongolia, some villagers and their livestock are endangered because of the heavily polluted land which is contaminating the crops. Zinc contamination has long tormented the people of Huludao in north-western Liaoning Province. Again, cancer and various bone diseases have taken away many lives.
“We’ve already got used to the pollution from zinc factories nearby. We were very calm when the nuclear accident happened in Fukushima. We all know that the radiation here is much more serious than in Japan,” one resident told.

Apart from the areas above, there are mines in Yunnan, Guangxi, Sichuan and Guizhou provinces that have also caused heavy metal contamination, and the pollution is spreading slowly, studies said. Roughly 12 mm tons of grain is contaminated by heavy metals every year, costing over RMB 20 bn in economic losses, experts told at the Science and Technological Week in Guangdong.
In February this year, the People’s Daily reported that about 10 % of Chinese rice sold on the market contains excessive cadmium, which aroused citizens to question how the contaminated rice got into the market when there are departments that supervise food quality.

Water pollution is as serious as soil pollution in China. In Zhejiang Province, 84 % of the river water cannot be consumed because of the pollution and people should be careful with shellfish in particular, for it might contain heavy metals inside, experts have warned.
“We are not optimistic about the water quality in China,” Jiao Yong, the Vice Minister of Water Resources revealed at a press conference on October 12, noting that during the 12th Five-Year Plan the government will have to focus on water treatment.

Statistics by the Ministry of Water Resources showed that 40 % of China’s water faces heavy pollution. Sources said that the government has allocated an RMB 13.49 bn budget for water treatment in the next five years.
“Because the situation of our country’s water quality is relatively serious, the central government continues to pay the utmost attention to water pollution and protection of water resources,” Jiang said.

There are growing fears among people in China that the country’s expanding pollution and a lack of related treatment mechanisms might cause public health problems or mass incidents.
Previously, the Chinese government simply ignored the environmental problems and has constantly blocked information on pollution in order to keep citizens calm. However, with increasing contamination, the situation seems to be slipping out of the central government’s control

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