Explore the dissolving boundary between science and science fiction with news from the front lines of discovery and imaginative speculation on how each one could change our world.
Chinese officials have publicly acknowledged the existence of “cancer villages”: regions with cancer rated significantly above national averages, attributed to widespread pollution. Environmental and humanitarian groups have reported on these cancer villages for over a decade; the recent announcement from the Ministry of Environment Protection came as part of a plan to address pollution and its consequences. Since the 1990s, cancer has become the number-one cause of death in China, and the country’s cancer mortality has increased 80 percent in the past 30 years. How has this happened? Two words: industrial pollution.
As China’s growth has skyrocketed, so have industries with some lethal side products, especially in rural areas. In the past year, there have been outbreaks of lead poisoning near smelting plants. Communities that process electronic waste—“e-waste”—are exposed to toxins. Chemical factories are blamed for introducing carcinogens to water supplies and food chains. As a result, Chinese farmers are almost four times more likely to die of liver cancer and twice as likely to die of stomach cancer than the global average, according to a World Bank study.
In 2010, investigative journalist and environmental activist Deng Fei published a map of China’s “cancer villages” that included over 100 villages across 27 provinces. This may actually be a conservative estimate; other research suggests the number of cancer villages may be over 400. Here are a few highlights from the Cancer Village awards:
This isn’t just China’s problem, it’s a global issue. “E-waste” processing in West Africa and India allows toxins such as cadmium and mercury to seep into arable soil and local food chains. In places like South America, so-called “artisanal miners”–who are responsible for 20% of the world’s gold production—are exposed to harmful elements while trying to refine metals in the same vessels they use to cook their food. Cancer, birth defects, chemical poisoning, and other health issues abound. Meanwhile, countries everywhere continue to develop their industries without thought of the environmental consequences. With a poor global economy, chances are this self-destructive cycle is only going to get worse.
By poisoning our planet we are quite literally poisoning ourselves. Official acknowledgement is a step in the right direction, but will it lead to any significant change? And if it does, will it be too late?
Imagine a planet full of cancer villages. Or birth defect villages. Or mercury poisoning villages. Today it’s little more than science fiction for most of us—a third world tragedy that makes us shake our head before changing channels—but what if it were your nation, or your town? What if the only way to keep your family alive was to embrace an industry that would eventually kill them?
Zombies may be the currently fashionable apocalypse, but replace the undead with a horde of living people–dying, poisoned, or mutated—and the picture is even scarier. Pollution is the plague, and no one is safe from infection. What if clean water no longer came from a faucet, and we had to buy it like the Huangmengying villagers? Surely many families could not afford the expense. How much would it cost to obtain food from uncontaminated fields? Prices would skyrocket. A thriving black market might spring up, selling (supposedly) pure goods.
Let’s assume that things get bad enough that policymakers finally act. Who gets to clean up the mess? Unless we can develop robots or remote technology to decontaminate toxic areas, we”ll have to do it ourselves. Someone will have to risk exposure to work in those polluted fields and streams. Who would choose that job? Perhaps governments would offer irresistible compensation to volunteers: financial security or, somewhat darker, forgiveness of criminal charges. Alternatively, the wealthy might barricade themselves in clean communities while more and more people outside live in a polluted world. They might rise up against the elites, or just keep struggling to get by. The most frightening scenario—and sadly, probably the most likely one—is that we won’t sufficiently address the issue. We might all be the “cancer villagers” of tomorrow.