Polluting factory's closest neighbours face grim future

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 August, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 August, 2009, 12:00am

Cao Jianhong's family has farmed the land around Shuangqiao in Hunan province for generations, but when a new neighbour arrived five years ago their world was turned upside down.

The family home is just 50 metres from the Xianghe Chemical plant which, since its construction, has spewed lethal metals into the surrounding soil and water. No house is closer to the 'devil factory', as residents have taken to calling it.

Of the six people in the household, four - Mr Cao, his 14-month-daughter, Ye Sang, and his father-in-law and sister-in-law - have been poisoned by the heavy metals cadmium and indium emitted by the factory. Doctors say his wife, Ye Xin , and his mother-in-law have excessive cadmium in their bodies but have not fallen ill.

Mr Cao believes moving away is their only option. He was among villagers who recently asked to be relocated from Zhentou township.

One of the villagers at the meeting said an official from Liuyang, the city that administers Zhentou, asked whether they would really be willing to live in a remote, barren area deep in the mountains.

'It was embarrassing - everyone said they would move anywhere so long as there was no pollution like in Zhentou,' said this villager. 'They said anywhere was better then living here and waiting for death to come.'

The factory began operating in 2004. Officially an animal-feed processing plant, it was in fact making indium, which is used in the liquid crystal displays in products such as mobile phones, flat-screen televisions and computer screens.

Villagers had been complaining since 2006 about pollution of their farmland and water, and signs of illness in their children, but events came to a head only in late May, when 44-year-old Luo Bailin died from cadmium poisoning. Four more deaths followed.

A survey of land within a 1.2 kilometre radius of the plant concluded crops could not be safely grown on it for another 60 years, and the Zhentou government began trucking in drinking water. Then officials took away villagers' produce, poultry and livestock.

Mr Cao's wife had noticed something was wrong with their daughter in February. 'She would not stop scratching her ears and other parts of her head,' she said.

The girl was admitted to a hospital in Changsha, the Hunan capital, two months ago for specialist treatment. When her condition did not improve, Mr Cao tried in vain to get her an injection, approaching five or six doctors. Her health failed to improve, but she was discharged 11 days ago when the authorities said they would no longer pay her hospital bill.

Ms Ye's father was admitted to hospital on the same day as her daughter, and his condition has not improved either.

The family are not alone. Neighbour Ye Guangliang, 80, said nine of the 12 people in his family had high concentrations of cadmium in their bodies. Mr Ye was tested two weeks ago and in addition to cadmium, his blood contained 38 times the tolerable level of the protein microglobulin. High levels of beta2-microglobulin are associated with kidney disease and cancers of the white blood cells. Excessive exposure to cadmium is known to cause cancer and intestinal damage. 'My body is strong and I haven't been sick for years. This is the first time I've been admitted to hospital,' he said.

Mr Cao, who looks much older than his 30 years, is struggling with the thought of what to do next.

'The township cadres came and took the 20 chickens, ducks and geese that I raised, paying me 20 yuan [HK$23] compensation for each. They paid me another 960 yuan for my 1,000 catties [600 kilograms] of grain,' said Mr Cao. They also took away all the family's stores of food.

For five weeks, the township government paid each resident living within 500 metres of the plant a daily subsidy of 12 yuan. But the payments stopped this week. In the meantime, the government forced villagers to sell their land. Mr Cao got 2,000 yuan for his 2,000 square metres of land.

'I used to make 10,000 yuan a year working in construction sites to support my family. My daughter is still young and the milk she drinks every day costs me a lot,' he said.

If the family stay in Shuangqiao, they face continued sickness and poverty. If they leave, it will be a journey into the unknown. The only certainty is that they'll never shake off the stigma of where they are from.

'With no food or land, I'm worried my family will starve to death. The meagre amount of money will only support a big family like mine for a few months. After that, we will have nothing,' Mr Cao said.