Orbiting Tomorrow

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.

Polluting the planet, polluting ourselves: Chinese government acknowledges “cancer villages”

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:

  • Around 2004, polluted water from a chemical factory in Nanchang City’s Wangcheng Township flowed into rice paddies and blackened the seedings. As a result, nearly 20 people contracted cancer, primarily laryngeal cancer and lung cancer.
  • Half of the deaths in Shenqiu’s Huangmengying village between 1990 and 2004 came from cancer. Waterfront industry and sewage discharge polluted twenty-one townships across Shenqiu County; villagers had to use credit to buy purified water.
  • After mining waste water flowed into Shangba village, farmland turned a brownish-red color and villagers began contracting skin diseases, liver diseases, and cancer. Ducks that entered the water died within four days, some within a matter of hours.
  • Between 2001-2006, 100 residents of Dongjin village died of esophageal and lung cancer after exposure to heavy pollution from a nearby chemical factory. Villagers brought a lawsuit against the factory, but each person received a settlement totaling only $11 USD.

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.

Source 1Source 2Source 3

Map of China's "cancer villages"

Map of China’s “cancer villages”

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.

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4 comments on “Polluting the planet, polluting ourselves: Chinese government acknowledges “cancer villages”

  1. Cancer in My Thirties
    February 26, 2013

    Great post! I wish everyone would read and learn from the info you are sharing. Thank you…

  2. Old Grump
    February 26, 2013

    Impressive, thought provoking and downright terrifying! Should be mandatory reading! Maybe this post would get our politicians to consider the real cost of not regulating industry!

  3. Chance
    February 26, 2013

    Last month I read a short story that I think has a similar message. It was a post-nuclear future. Details are scarce (joys of a short story is you get to fill in a lot with your imagination) but basically humanity was living in safe-ish radiation free zones. But there was a company offering a ‘paradise’. You could have all the fresh food you wanted, live a hedonistic life, free house that you would never have to clean, etc etc… The catch was that it was in a radiation soaked area. You had to give everything you owned to the company before you left. And once you got there, you would probably die of radiation poisoning within 6 months. But during that 6 months, you could live any fantasy you wanted (until you got so sick and died). To go off on a short tangent here, if you watch the movie Stranger Than Fiction the main character knows he is going to die and he is upset about it (obviously). Dustin Hoffman’s character says that it should be freeing, but now he can do anything he likes without regret. If he wants to, he can just eat pancakes all day. When the main char says the obvious response that he doesn’t want to eat pancakes all day, Dustin Hoffman gives a great response. “It depends on the quality of the life and the quality of the pancakes…”

    But to think of a world where we are reduced to living in ‘safe havens’ and realize that it’s not just some sci-fi dream. It is a real possibility. Probably not in our lifetime (excepting some huge apocalyptic event) but by our grandchildren’s time, if we aren’t careful, it could conceivably happen. That’s terrifying. Unfortunately mankind is not genetically disposed to think in such ‘long terms’ and most of the people in power find it easier to ‘kick the can’ and pass the problems on to the next generation.

    On a bright note though, we can look at the tsunami that caused the nuclear power plant in Japan to leak radiation. When young people were going in to try and clean the place up, the elderly stepped up and volunteered to do it. They said that they were going to die soon anyways and wanted to make sure that the young people had a better world to live in. It’s both depressing and inspiring at the same time. There are people in the world that will step up to make things better. And those are the ones that will prevent a polluted holocaust of the future.

  4. Pingback: The Fallout: A Community Copes with Uranium Pollution | Orbiting Tomorrow

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This entry was posted on February 26, 2013 by in Earth and Nature, Health and tagged , , , , .
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