Climate change

At home to cancer

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 17 June, 2011, 12:00am

Li Sherong, a villager who lives along the Xiang River in Hunan province, says she is counting her remaining days after she was diagnosed with cancer nearly three years ago. She isn't the only member of her family haunted by the killer disease - her husband and two of his brothers died of cancer in the past few years.

Her family's tragic story is not uncommon in Sanyuan, a riverside settlement in the mining centre of Hengyang that has earned a grim name: 'cancer village'.

'My whole body is in pain, and I can't do any physical work,' said the 52-year-old, who suffers from a form of uterine cancer.

Like her neighours, she blames pollution from neighbouring factories. In particular, she points to several huge chimneys a few hundred metres from their homes that churn out black and yellowish clouds of filthy smoke day and night.

The smokestacks belong to the No. 3 smelting plant of the mainland's second-largest lead and zinc producer, Hunan Shuikoushan Nonferrous Metals, which produces over 40,000 tonnes of lead and zinc concentrates each year.

'The smoke billowing through those stacks often chokes me awake at night, and we have to shut the windows and doors to ward off soot and dust all the time,' Li said.

Doctors have recommended that she undergo an operation or chemotherapy, but she can afford neither. 'I am afraid I won't survive for too long because I know how cancer actually kills people and I don't have the money to save my life,' she said.

Li's only wish is that her 32-year-old son and two grandchildren can be freed from pollution-related diseases and spared premature death. She is not the only one who lives in despair. Village cadre Chen Yuanfa, 60, says fellow villagers have been living with the pollution scare for years. According to locals, at least 20 people in Sanyuan have died over the past decade of various forms of cancer, including lung and stomach cancers and lymphoma. Most of them were in their 40s and 50s. Songbai town, which administers Sanyuan, is home to around 40,000 people.

The village is surrounded by the zinc smelter and a chemical fertiliser plant, which have been discharging foul-smelling poisons since the 1950s. Dark, dirty dust can be seen everywhere: on the villagers' rooftops, in their rooms and on clothes hanging outdoors to dry.

'We did not know at all the grave consequences of living next door to those factories until our friends and relatives began to fall ill and die,' said Chen, whose younger brother was in his mid-40s when he died of lymphoma four years ago. 'We used to be proud of the smelter, but it turned out to be a nightmare.'

About 20 years ago, the provincial environmental watchdog tested water from the village's 10-metre-deep wells and found it was too contaminated to drink. But it refused to release details of the test result or give reasons for the contamination.

Doctors at Changsha Xiangya Hospital told villagers that their chronic exposure to pollution was related to the prevalence of cancer, Liao and other villagers recalled.

Following a sit-in by villagers in front of the factories, local authorities intervened and asked the plant's operators to foot part of the bill for digging a deep well for the locals.

Villagers say they have almost given up efforts to seek justice after their attempts to petition local and provincial governments fell on deaf ears.

'We've been suffering from pollution ... for decades. We did not know so many people had died of cancer until a few years ago because our parents' generation did not even bother to go to hospital when they were ill in the past,' said 38-year-old Liao Shenggui .

Villagers said their grievances and demands for compensation and relocation have never been taken seriously. 'People are dying here, but no one cares,' said Liao, who lost her brother-in-law to stomach cancer.

Most of Sanyuan's young people have left for other provinces to find jobs, leaving their parents and young children at home.

'It is impossible for us to live among those polluting factories. We will all die if we stay here. Either we must go or the factories must move to other places,' Chen said.

Local authorities have promised to clean up pollution since the 1970s, but villagers said officials did not even bother to visit the neighbourhood or look into their grievances, while the environment continued to deteriorate. 'We've tried everything we can to voice our grievances, but nothing seems to be happening. So we have stopped petitioning since 2006,' said Chen.

Locals were also angry at mainland media reports that quoted local government officials as saying the pollution had been properly tackled and the environment near Shuikoushan Metals markedly improved.

Shuikoushan, with a history of more than 100 years, used to be famous for its rich zinc, copper and gold mines. Local media touted the area as the world's lead capital. But in the past three decades, the company - which emits over 20,000 tonnes of sulphur dioxide and 150,000 tonnes of industrial waste annually, and 4,000 tonnes of wastewater daily - has been notorious for wreaking environmental havoc.

In a written response to questions from the South China Morning Post, the provincial environmental watchdog admitted that severe pollution near Songbai had yet to be tackled effectively.

Although the smelter is considered one of the top contributors to the high levels of pollution along the Xiang River, the watchdog said it had 'made some progress in improving the environment' following an expensive technology upgrade.

Professor Dai Tagen , at Central South University's school of geoscience and environmental engineering in Changsha , said the environment around Songbai was a vivid example of the harm a factory could do to a major river.

'I've been concerned about Shuikoushan Metals for a long time,' he said. 'If you want an idea of the extent of pollution on the Xiang, just look at the different colours of the river before and after it flows through Songbai.'