The toxic legacy

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 May, 2011, 12:00am


Thousands of villagers in Hunan are still living in the shadow of one of the worst pollution scandals on the mainland. And while the authorities have preferred to ignore their pleas for help, they may now have the proof they need - in their blood.

As villagers along the Liuyang River struggle to figure out how to make a living after toxic metals leaking from a nearby chemicals plant over six years destroyed their fertile farmland, the death toll - the unofficial one, that is - is growing.

People are dying of pollution-related diseases two years after the Xianghe Chemical factory was shut down. In Shuangqiao and neighbouring Puhua and Gankou, which lie about 70 kilometres north of the provincial capital Changsha , villagers say as many as 20 people have been killed by metal poisoning, so far.

But the Liuyang government stopped counting past the first two victims. The death toll has stayed at two since mass protests erupted over the death of five villagers in 2009.

Blood tests carried out this month by Beijing's Chaoyang Hospital showed three out of four villagers were suffering from high levels of cadmium, an extremely toxic metal which is used to make batteries.

Yet in a free check-up organised by the local authority last year, out of 3,600 villagers within a 1.2-kilometre radius of the plant, the number of people deemed to have excessive amount of cadmium was just 321.

According to medical experts, chronic exposure to cadmium may damage the kidney and liver. It can cause cancer and failure of the nervous system and lungs.

In the latest blood tests, one Shuangqiao villager, Chen Haiyu, had more than three times the threshold considered safe by mainland authorities. An abnormal level of cadmium was also found in Chen's urine sample.

Like many others who have been poisoned by cadmium and lead, Chen, 33, says she suffers pains in her chest and bones and chronic fatigue.

The villagers are struggling to cope with their illnesses without proper medical support, let alone fair compensation.

There seems little likelihood of that when local authorities refuse to accept the villagers' unofficial toll or even carry out autopsies on the dead - which medical and legal experts say would be necessary to prove a link between their death and the pollution.

Clinical autopsies by a provincial hospital on the only official victims - Luo Bailin, 44, and Ouyang Shuzhi, 61 - showed they died of brain damage and multiple organ failure, including their lungs, liver and kidneys, caused by acute cadmium poisoning. They both worked part-time at the chemical plant.

Villagers say most others died in similar circumstances, severely weakened and in agony, after their bodies, too, became riddled with cadmium and indium, a chemical used to make solar panels and liquid crystal displays. Despite local government refusals to link the deaths with the pollution scandal, the families of those who have died have each been given 38,000 to 68,000 yuan (HK$45,000 to HK$81,200) 'for funeral expenses'.

Shuangqiao villager Ouyang Jinfu said: 'We are still at a loss about our future, which has been thrown into jeopardy by the damned smelter.'

Ouyang, 64, who used to work at the factory, which stood within 50 metres of his home, has been poisoned, as has his wife and daughter-in-law, by life-threatening metals - notably cadmium and indium.

His greatest fears are for his grandson, Yuwang. The five-year-old has been found with excessive concentrations of lead and he is much smaller than the other children in the village.

'Yuwang was diagnosed with nephritis [a serious disease in which the kidneys become inflamed] two years ago, and now he has shown symptoms of intellectual deterioration. He can't even count from one to 10,' said the grandfather.

A blood test in 2009 by doctors from provincial hospitals in the wake of the toxic metal leaks showed Yuwang's lead level was 50 per cent more than the recognised limit.

'He was briefly treated in the provincial children's hospital when the metal leaks were first exposed. We've been on our own after that, including paying his medication bill of around 400 yuan a month,' Ouyang said.

At least 18 children have been found to have high concentrations of lead in their blood. In an official investigation two years ago, provincial authorities denied lead poisoning should be linked to the smelter, but the investigation report admitted that, in at least 70 hectares of rice paddies within a 1.2-kilometre radius of the plant, cadmium concentrations were at a dangerous level.

Authorities have also refused to provide checks on indium, which when the plant was operating fetched about US$1,000 per kilogram.

The factory had been illegally producing indium since 2004 without necessary safety facilities for dealing with the toxic waste, which was discharged, untreated, into the Liuyang River.

Although the smelter, located on a small hill right between Shuangqiao and Puhua villages, was shut at the height of the public outcry nearly two years ago, locals fear the full impact of the metal pollution has yet to be seen.

Shuangqiao villager Liu Hanming, 60, who was poisoned by cadmium after having worked at the factory from the start of its operation in 2004, said pollution was still everywhere in their daily lives.

'The river is contaminated. The farmland has been poisoned, and so have we,' said Liu, insisting that villagers be relocated to minimise the pollution's impact.

'More people have fallen ill in the past year, and some of our neighbours have chosen to leave. We are still living in a contaminated environment and are constantly exposed to the poisoning of cadmium and other toxic metals. Authorities have done nothing useful to address our concerns.'

Instead, local authorities insisted there was no need for resettlement or any prolonged fears about pollution because they were capable of cleaning up the contamination within a few years.

'Liuyang city government officials believed relocation was an unreasonable demand and told us not to even think about it,' said Liu. 'They said we were not up to the standard, but they never elaborated on the standard they referred to.'

In a written response to questions raised by the South China Morning Post, the provincial environmental watchdog said it had taken a series of measures to tackle the pollution, including removing deeply contaminated soil and planting trees in the largely abandoned farmland.

But the tree planting has seen the credibility of local authorities plunge to a new low.

While authorities maintained planting trees in polluted farmland was part of the clean-up effort, villagers believed it was another attempt by the government to cover up the scandal.

'They don't want people from outside to see our barren farmland largely deserted after the scandal, which is the best proof of the metal poisoning,' said Li Minghui from Puhua village.

The environmental protection bureau went on to claim that no abnormal cadmium levels were found in the affected areas in a soil test in September last year as a result of their clean-up effort.

But locals know too well that there is no cure for cadmium poisoning.

Villagers have been told by experts that their farmland may not be suitable for growing crops for at least three decades.

Medical experts have also warned that the harmful effects of heavy metals could last for up to 30 years once absorbed into their bodies.

A deep well was dug for people living within 500 metres of the plant by the authorities which insisted villagers should not be worried too much about their health, drinking water and crops.

In 2009, high concentrations of cadmium were found in more than 570 of the 3,600 villagers within a 1.2-kilometre radius of the plant.

The number of people deemed to have excessive amounts of cadmium dropped to 321 in another free check-up organised by local government in April last year.

But few villagers were convinced by the results amid the deepening mistrust between authorities and local villagers, which contributed to the escalation of the pollution row in 2009.

'We think the government manipulated the test results,' said Shuangqiao villager Ye Youzhi. 'Who can otherwise explain the dramatic improvement in cadmium levels in my granddaughter while her health is in decline?'

Ye Sang, who will turn three in July this year, was poisoned by the toxic metal when she was only eight months old. While her grandfather said the girl has yet to recover from metal poisoning, test results last year showed no excessive cadmium levels in her.

'She gets ill easily and recovers much more slowly than other children her age. Worst of all, she has to be hospitalised because her skin begins to rot from time to time,' Ye said.

He said his family had yet to get compensation and was too poor to get full medical treatment for Sang.

Like the thousands of other people in the three villages affected by the pollution, Ye only got a daily subsidy of 12 yuan per head for a little over a month in 2009.

Ouyang said he has begun to cough up blood recently whenever he tried to do heavy lifting. 'We have lost almost everything to pollution. We've urged the government to pay our medical bills because we are too poor to afford proper treatment,' he said.

The factory was dismantled and sold off to another smelter in Zhuzhou for 8.5 million yuan a year ago.

'The government had promised to use the money to compensate us and clean up pollution. But we haven't got a penny yet,' Ye said.

Dozens of uniformed policemen and officials in police vehicles have been sent to the three villages to persuade locals to accept a deal offered by the government.

Villagers would get 500 to 700 yuan per mu (there are 15 mu in one hectare) if they agreed to lease their land to authorities. Most villagers, who usually have less than one mu of farmland, would receive about 400 yuan annually.

Authorities have threatened to detain those who refuse to accept the deal.

However, most villagers have remain defiant and have protested against the arrangement, which they said was not fair.

'We can't accept the arrangement before we get proper compensation for the loss of our farmland,' said Ouyang Zhijun from Shuangqiao.

'Besides, if they are serious about tackling pollution, why do they only plant trees in farmland along the roads?' he asked. 'How can we survive with only a few hundred yuan a year?'

Yi Xiaohong said: 'We deserve to be treated more fairly as we are victims of the pollution scandal and our lives have been ruined by that damned factory.' Her husband died of stomach cancer a year ago.

Yi said the government, which had refused to help her foot the medical bill for her husband, paid out 58,000 yuan as funeral expenses to her family.

'We used to live in a pollution-free environment, and few people became ill before the factory moved here in 2004,' she said.

Many Shuangqiao and Puhua villagers said they had no other choice but to continue to grow vegetables on their farmland despite toxic contamination. Some are living on only two meals a day.

Chen Haiyu said she was shocked at the latest test results which showed excessive cadmium levels in her blood. 'Oh silly me! I had even believed the government's assertion about the clean-up progress and begun to grow vegetables myself,' she said angrily.

In an interview last month, Ye Youzhi, who had also been poisoned, said he was afraid of thinking about the future. 'Four out of six in my family have become ill from metal poisoning. Is there still a future for us?'

According to his neighbours in Shuangqiao, he was admitted to hospital earlier this month and is now in critical condition.