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Wild Green

Former Utne Reader senior editor Keith Goetzman on environmental issues from climate change to composting.

China’s Cancer Villages Are Real—and Probably Worse Than Reported

 by Keith Goetzman

Tags: Keith Goetzman, environment, pollution, health, air and water, China, cancer, cancer villages, Environment magazine,

Factory near Yangtze River

Industrial pollution in some Chinese villages is so bad that it’s killing off not just residents but the towns themselves. Environment magazine reports on the bleak-and-bleaker conditions in these “cancer villages” such as Shangba in southern China’s Guangdong province:

The river water in Shangba was reported to be so contaminated that aquatic organisms could not survive in the water for more than 24 hours, even when the water was diluted 10,000 times. The water is still very toxic 50 kilometers downstream from Shangba. About 10 people die of cancer each year in this village, whose 2009 registered population was 3,329. The actual number of residents is much fewer, however, as some villagers, especially young people, have been moving out of the cancer villages to work in other places. Many families are in debt due to cancer treatments and are too poor to relocate. They have given up and are waiting to die.

Chinese media have been reporting about the “cancer villages” for several years, and some of the coverage has bled out to international mainstream media such as People magazine and the BBC. Environment researcher Lee Liu dug deeper on the subject, attempting to confirm the credibility of news reports and the extent of the phenomenon. A geographer who specializes in sustainable development, he concluded that, if anything, it “is likely to be more prevalent than has been previously reported.” Why?

Because Chinese media and academic journals are governmentally controlled, their reports tend to be conservative about politically sensitive and negative subjects. However, there have been no reports disputing the cancer-village phenomenon. There is no known national ban on cancer-village reporting, though new cancer-village reports are rare after May 2009. There are reports that local government agencies and polluting factories threatened, harassed, and assaulted investigators and reporters. The government often disciplines and removes newspaper and journal editors who publish politically sensitive and negative reports. … In addition, the traditional Chinese culture continues to identify people with the particular village where they are from. A personal label of “cancer village” would turn away potential investors, tourists, friends, and spouses.

Liu’s incredible report is worth checking out, covering the environmental, political, social, and cultural dimensions of the cancer-village phenomenon and reminding us that for every story we read about an eager-to-green China, many darker tales are perhaps not being fully told.

Source: Environment

Image by High Contrast, licensed under Wikimedia Commons.