Cancer Clusters in China
In a very interesting report by the Guardian newspaper
, reported Jonathan Kaiman has taken a look at the increasing rates of cancer in China and specifically, in the mostly poor communities near chemical plants, pharmaceutical plants or power plants.
Many of these communities live a subsistence existence which involves fishing or farming for their food. The simple act of collecting water from the river is now a dangerous one for many families, because the water is often contaminated. The explosion in industrialization in China has seen vast tracts of land and water in some of these poorer areas contaminated by cancer causing agents.
One of the towns, Yanglingang, is considered what they now call a “cancer village” – a village near polluting factories which have seen cancer rates soar in recent years. Chinese academics consider about 450 communities to be “cancer villages” because of their close proximity to heavy industrial activity that is polluting the environment they need to survive. The cancer villages are spread across most of China except for the far western Qinghai province and Tibet.
The past 30 years of massive acceleration in industrial development in China has carried significant costs and the cancer villages are one of those costs. Some of the villages are very small but have seen 10 or 20 deaths from cancer in recent years, above the national average and far above the average in other countries.
The government has acknowledged the problems and has commissioned a 5 year plan to increase environmental protection measures which should lower cancer risk from hazardous materials. However with many of the population exposed for the last few decades, the cancer rate will increase in the short term. In the provinces many officials refuse to acknowledge the problem and we only know about it through studies by academics and the work of non governmental organizations. Even officials higher up in the government still refuse to acknowledge the problem with the head of China’s national cancer registry, Chen Wanqing telling the guardian that the admission of a problem by the ministry of environment was a mistake.
In the west, the link between pollution and cancer has been known for many years. In China the cancer mortality rates have risen by 80% in the last 30 years making cancer the leading cause of death. In the cancer villages, the primary cause is often the water which has been polluted by industrial processes. In the city it is often air pollution that causes cancer, in particular lung cancer. Many of China’s waterways are horrendously polluted, with some reports suggesting that almost half of it’s water is unfit for human contact. A huge problem when in the poor smaller communities, they often obtain their water directly from waterways. Consumption of water filled with toxins and heavy metals that accumulate in the human body of the years leads to the cancer clusters in these small towns.
Many of the towns also use the rivers for fishing, and now many of the fish contain heavy metals, further increasing their cancer risk. Near many towns like Yanglingang the industrial plants discharge their waste directly into the waterways and nearby power plants heavily pollute the air. Some villagers use alum powder to purify the water, but a “industrial aftertaste” is still present. Infant mortality rates are also increasing in many of these communities, possibly due to hazardous chemicals in the waterways.
The more affluent areas in China have become more aware of the issues with pollution and some have even managed to get factories shutdown and moved elsewhere to lower the level of pollution. However in many of these small communities, they don’t have the money or connections to prevent heavy industrialization and pollution right next to their communities.
There is a constant battle raging between the small communities and authorities who often refuse to accept that the heavy industrialization is a problem. The cancer rates are obviously linked to pollutants according to impartial health officials, another problem in burgeoning China.