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  • Sep 18, 2014
  • Updated: 12:34pm

Dangerous elements

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 July, 2011, 12:00am

Yi Xiaomao has tears in her eyes as she talks about the final days of her daughter, Bingjie, who died in 2008, one day before her sixth birthday, partly from cadmium poisoning. The sparse living room is furnished with just a small table, a few wooden stools and an old television. On a wall are posters of a smiling Mao Zedong and the God of Wealth.

The table is piled high with medical reports, laboratory results and legal documents related to Bingjie's case. A written court verdict indicates the family was awarded 6,037 yuan (HK$7,260) for the girl's death. The family has not claimed the money.

Yi sits on a small wooden chair flipping through documents. She comes across a photograph of Bingjie taken shortly before she died. It shows a thin child dressed only in baggy underwear that seems like it's about to fall from her waist. This is one of just two photographs the family have of their late daughter. A second, soiled photograph shows Bingjie and her elder sister sitting back to back, smiling during happier times. The older girl is flashing the V sign.

Dozens of people are said to have died and countless others have been made sick in Xinma, a small village in Majiahe county, Hunan province, two hours south of the provincial capital, Changsha. All were victims of heavy-metal poisoning of the land by Longteng Industry, a private electroplate manufacturer, which denied responsibility and has since closed.

Villagers allege that the factory poured toxic waste into the fields while government officials were paid to look the other way. The few who are willing to speak tell a story of collusion between local government, environmental officials, the factory owner and 'hei shehui', or mafia organisation. With the land ruined by toxic waste, which is next to impossible to clean up and which has tainted the food and water supply, many villagers have abandoned their homes and farms to seek jobs in cities.

A HEAVY METAL IS A member of a loosely defined subset of elements that exhibit metallic properties. Some of them, including mercury, cadmium, lead, chromium and arsenic, are dangerous to human health and the environment while others, such as zinc, cause corrosion. Heavy metals are dispersed during various industrial processes.

The danger to health posed by heavy-metal poisoning is not confined to Majiahe, but is spreading across the mainland, resulting in the toxic contamination of fields and water sources, which, in turn, affects vegetables, fruit, rice and water, and leads to countless deaths.

Given that 80 to 90 per cent of the vegetables sold in Hong Kong come from Guangdong, one of the worst-affected provinces, it is a major cause of concern here, too.

According to a report published in March by Baptist University's Hong Kong Organic Resource Centre (HKORC), mainland vegetables sold in Hong Kong contain high levels of lead and traces of other metals, including cadmium. The centre tested 93 samples of vegetables imported from the mainland and purchased at wet markets and supermarkets and discovered that choi sum and spinach were the most contaminated. Both vegetables absorb lead more easily than others.

Although the levels of lead in the vegetables were 2.8 times higher than the global standard, they are acceptable under Hong Kong regulations, which are 20 times less stringent than those used by the World Health Organisation, the European Union and Australia. Traces of cadmium were also found in some vegetables.

All mainland vegetables legally entering the city must come from registered farms and through the Man Kam To Control Point, where vehicles are subject to random inspection by the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department. According to a statement from the department: 'Apart from maintaining close liaison with the mainland in respect of management at source, the Hong Kong government adopts the strategy of collecting vegetable samples for testing at import, wholesale and retail levels to ensure food safety. Between January 2010 and April 2011, about 800 vegetable samples were taken by the FEHD for testing of lead and no vegetable sample was found with lead levels higher than the legal limit [six parts per million].'

The FEHD also tests for cadmium and arsenic.

'The testing [the FEHD] does now is quite in-depth,' says Jonathan Wong Woon-chung, director of HKORC. 'However, the standards for what is acceptable in Hong Kong are still lower than in other countries, such as the United States. But the average Hongkonger shouldn't worry; it's still mostly safe. The government should ramp up the inspections, though, because conditions in China are getting more problematic.

'If Hongkongers should worry, it's about smuggled vegetables.'

Post Magazine tested mainland produced spinach and bak choi, which were bought in wet markets in Causeway Bay and Mong Kok. Neither sample contained detectable amounts of arsenic, mercury, lead, antimony or tin, but the spinach contained 0.06mg/kg of cadmium and both contained chromium (0.2mg/kg in the spinach and 0.08mg/kg in the bak choi). These levels are within the Hong Kong government's safety limits.

RELATIVELY UNKNOWN JUST two years ago, heavy-metal poisoning in the mainland has been exposed in a raft of media and NGO reports over the past two years.

In October 2009, some 1,000 children tested positive for lead poisoning in Henan, and in August the same year, more than 600 children in Shaanxi province were discovered to have excessive levels of lead in their blood. In January this year, state media reported that more than 200 children in Anhui province had been poisoned by lead from battery plants located close to houses. In March, lead emissions from a battery plant in Zhejiang province poisoned an estimated 139 villagers, including 35 children.

Last month, the state-run Xinhua News Agency reported that more than 600 people, including 103 children, had fallen ill in Zhejiang in the mainland's most recent incident of mass lead poisoning. A month earlier, production was suspended at hundreds of battery factories in the province after dozens of people fell ill as a result of lead and cadmium poisoning.

Two studies by the Nanjing Agricultural University found as much as 10 per cent of the mainland's rice may be tainted by cadmium, the result of factory discharges and poor government oversight. The university report says some of the tainted rice slips into markets in wealthier cities.

In February, Caixin, a leading news weekly, quoted soil expert Chen Tongbin, a research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources (Environmental Remediation Research Centre), as saying 10 per cent of China's farmland had been contaminated by heavy metals, the leading culprits being cadmium and arsenic.

Despite a growing number of anecdotal reports, the actual extent of the problem is difficult to assess, say environmentalists.

'We know something is happening, but we don't really know how bad the problem is,' says Liu Lican, an independent environmental researcher in Guangzhou. 'All the data is in the hands of the government. I have spoken to scientists who say even they can't get data from the government.'

'The biggest problem is that we can hardly get hold of the scale of the problem,' says Mariah Zhao, a Greenpeace toxics campaigner. 'If you don't have this data, it's very hard to judge progress or if there have been any real efforts [to stop the contamination].'

The 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015) says a 15 per cent reduction in heavy-metal emissions from 2007 levels is required for 'key regions', and that five industrial sectors have been designated 'key industries'. However, the plan remains a classified document, with few other details from it available yet.

The situation is particularly bad in southern China. According to a report last year by Greenpeace, textile towns across Guangdong are paying a high price for their booming economies. Investigations by the environmental organisation found widespread pollution, including high levels of heavy metals, in the towns of Xintang and Gurao.

Xintang, known as the 'blue jeans capital of the world' and the scene of recent riots over alleged police brutality, produces more than 200 million pairs of jeans a year, equal to 60 per cent of national output. The local economy is dependent on the industry, which began in the 1980s.

Blue jeans are much dirtier than one would expect, write Greenpeace researchers, adding that 'cool distressed denim wash is the result of several chemical-intensive washes', with fabric printing and dyeing involving heavy metals such as cadmium, lead and mercury.

'Dyeing, washing, bleaching and printing are some of the dirtiest processes in the textile industry, requiring high volumes of water as well as heavy metals and other chemicals,' Greenpeace's Zhao says. 'And Xintang is home to the complete blue-jean manufacturing process.'

Small family workshops abound in Xintang, which is a 30-minute drive from Guangzhou. Women, children and the elderly can be seen sitting on pavements trimming cloth to make extra cash. Reams of denim are displayed in front of shops for buyers to browse through.

Dadun, a village on the eastern side of Xintang, is lined with factories. Waste water emerges from factory pipes that extend straight into the narrow rivers that crisscross the village. The polluted water eventually flows into the Dong River, one of the main tributaries of the Pearl River. Much of the Pearl River Delta has been polluted by heavy metals, according to an investigation conducted by the State Environmental Protection Administration. The study found that 40 per cent of farms and vegetable plots in the region had been polluted by heavy metals.

A rubbish-laden river flows beneath the Xintang bridge. When asked what the river is called, an old man standing on the bridge says, 'Choujiang' ('smelly river'). The man says that when he was young he played in the river. 'No one would swim here anymore,' he says, shaking his head. 'It's too polluted.'

Greenpeace reports that factory workers complain of reproductive problems as well as pleurisy. Last month, demonstrations broke out in Guangdong to protest against the lead poisoning of workers.

'A lot of people have gotten sick,' says a Sichuanese man, one of a dozen workers milling outside a small concrete shanty town next to a large denim factory by the Dong River. He glances nervously at his silent peers and cautiously adds, 'Maybe they got sick from natural causes.'

About 100 metres farther on, the road slices into fields lined with factories, their pipes pouring waste water into a small river. It's hard to tell if the water has been treated or not, but local farmers express fears about its safety.

'The water is really dirty and it smells very bad,' a farmer says. 'Of course, I worry, but what can I do?'

A small waterway runs through Xiapu village, where rows of factories line both banks. There are green blotches on the surface of the water. A man who looks in his 40s who is squatting on the bridge says the water was clear until factories began pouring waste into the river. He says people no longer dare to come into contact with the river.

'Even if you wash your hands, you'll get a rash,' he says.

He says local factories pipe waste water into the river and sometimes workers drive up in trucks at night and dump waste into the water.

A few kilometres away, a hawker sells clothes on a bridge over a river that is a syrupy black with small bubbles on the surface. The river is covered with rubbish thrown from windows; the water has a bad chemical smell. When asked what the source of the pollution is, the hawker points to a large factory a few blocks away.

Gurao is an industrial town in eastern Guangdong, an hour's drive from Shantou. Dubbed the 'capital of sexy', Gurao's streets are lined with huge billboards emblazoned with lingerie models. Some 80 per cent of Gurao's output is underwear and it produces 200 million bras each year. The other noticeable thing about Gurao is the acrid smell that hangs in the air.

A short drive from the town centre lies a narrow waterway that runs through sleepy Ximei village. Near Gurao Middle School, which faces the river, steam rises about a foot off the water, which is filled with household rubbish, scraps of material and other kinds of factory waste. Many local farmers have deserted the land to work in the factories.

'There are fish in this river, but you can't eat them,' says a rubbish collector from Sichuan. 'The water is too dirty.'

Farther down the river, a man in a produce market squats in front of several large buckets filled with water and live fish. Asked if the fish come from the river, he chuckles.

'There are no fish in this river, they're all dead from the waste water,' he says. 'If I put one of my fish in the water it wouldn't last an hour. If I jumped in, I'd be dead in minutes.'

Greenpeace reports that testing by an independent laboratory indicated heavy metals such as copper, cadmium and lead were present in 17 out of 21 samples of water and sediment taken from Xintang and Gurao. The report said one sediment sample from Xintang contained cadmium at concentrations 128 times over national environmental standards.

A 20-minute drive from Gurao is Guiyu, the inhabitants of which recycle millions of tonnes of electronic waste each year. Foamy water comes out of factory pipes that run straight into the river, which is a strange milky white. Workers take old computers apart in small shops as three-wheeled vehicles and large cargo trucks, piled high with used electronics, zip up and down the town's main road. The sharp smell of burning plastic fills the air.

According to research by Shantou University Medical College, elevated lead levels have been discovered in the blood of children from the area. The report says 60 to 80 per cent of families in the town are involved in electronic-waste recycling carried out by small workshops. Because the implementation of a clean and safe hi-tech recovery process would be prohibitively expensive, researchers say the techniques used in Guiyu remain primitive. As a result, residue is scattered across workshops, gardens, roadsides, fields, irrigation canals, river banks, ponds and rivers.

The report says several studies have discovered 'soaring levels of toxic heavy metals and organic contaminants in samples of dust, soil, river sediment, surface water and groundwater of Guiyu', with residents reporting a high incidence of skin complaints, headaches, vertigo, nausea, chronic gastritis and gastric and duodenal ulcers.

Children in the town are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning as they absorb more of the element from the environment -food, water, air and soil- than do adults. Of children tested in Guiyu, 81.8 per cent had high levels of lead, compared with 37 per cent in neighbouring Chendian, where there are no electronic-waste processing facilities. The researchers said lead contamination may have spread from Guiyu to Chendian through dust, rivers and the air, thereby contributing to the still relatively high blood-lead levels there.

Environmentalists say the government is making efforts on a national level, passing laws and regulations to deal with the problem. Implementation, however, remains a problem.

'The industry is still there and polluting,' says the independent environmental researcher Liu Lican. 'There are laws but the punishment is not there - it's just a paper law.'

Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, says weak enforcement means there is a lack of incentive for manufacturers and buyers to act. Experts say companies are reluctant to spend money on advanced pollution-control equipment because that would cut into profits in a competitive environment. And, says Ma, local officials are 'still putting gross domestic product ahead of environmental protection and public health'.

Even when polluters are punished, says Ma, 'the penalty is not sufficient to really discourage [them]. The cost of violating is still lower than the cost of compliance. So we see some of the factories having problems year after year, just paying [the fines] without solving the problem.'

Ma warns that heavy metals pose a bigger threat than most other pollutants because they don't decompose naturally, instead becoming more concentrated over time. Furthermore, victims of industrial pollution have limited legal protection.

'Villagers are told they can't do anything to those factories because they're legal,' says Liu Lican. 'They have no resources or power to fight with. They just can't afford to go to court or to petition.'

The situation in Xinma is a textbook example of how things can go so wrong.

SITTING IN A RESTAURANT on the outskirts of Changsha, where he now works as a river dredger, Liu Guian, Bingjie's father, tells his story. He blames the situation on the now-closed electroplating factory that was set up in his village in 1996. Villagers say the factory owner bribed local environmental officials, who certified that it had pollution-control equipment when it did not.

'In my village, few people still farm,' Liu Guian says.

When asked if he knows when he'll be able to return to the land his family has farmed since the 1930s, he replies: 'It's hard to say. I've heard 50 years, but certainly in my life it won't happen.'

He says other families continue to farm, despite the dangers: 'Of course we worry, but worrying is of no use. What can you eat?'

One young villager says tainted farm produce 'goes all over this area and people don't know it'.

As Liu Guian describes his daughter's illness, his face darkens. He says that on July 17, 2006, his wife noticed their four-year-old daughter's eyes were swollen. He describes visits to a string of hospitals that gave different diagnoses. One suggested chronic cadmium poisoning. According to local media reports, cadmium found in her urine had risen to twice the minimum recognised as poisoning. Heavy metals damage both the kidney and the liver.

'At first I had only one hope, that the doctors' diagnoses were wrong,' Liu Guian says. 'I had hoped my daughter would get better, despite my fears.'

After a short stay in the Hunan Children's Hospital, Bingjie showed a slight improvement and was brought home in August 2006. However, she never fully recovered and Liu Guian began to visit other hospitals. The family spent more than 90,000 yuan, a huge sum for a poor rural family, taking Bingjie to just about every major hospital in the province. Villagers donated money and the local government gave the family 12,000 yuan.

Liu Guian says his daughter died in his arms the day before her sixth birthday. He recalls that the family called her Jiemeizi, or Little Sister Jie, and he flashes a bittersweet smile.

The factory denied responsibility, claiming it had the proper environmental certification. However, a court ruled against the company and awarded the Liu family 6,037 yuan for Bingjie's death, saying the cadmium poisoning was 5 per cent of the cause.

Liu Lican, who says there may be more than 400 'aizheng cun', or 'cancer villages', in the mainland, says the compensation offered to Bingjie's family was insufficient and 'just coffin money'.

Local officials declined to be interviewed, offering no explanation for how people in the village were poisoned if the factory had had the required equipment.

A doctor in Beijing who examined Bingjie's medical records from two hospitals confirmed to Post Magazine that she was also suffering from lupus, and that while the disease had not been triggered by it, the cadmium poisoning made her condition worse.

'If she had not been poisoned by the cadmium, the lupus might not have taken her life so quickly and so fiercely,' the doctor says. 'And at least the anaemia might not have become so hard to treat.'

Villagers estimate that 30 to 40 people may have died as a result of heavy metals poisoning in Xinma. Yi, Bingjie's mother, says in one family alone, 13 people got sick, and when they were examined, it was found they were all suffering from cadmium poisoning.

The same year that Bingjie passed away, the local government began to take halting steps to deal with the problem, which villagers argue was just a ploy. It shut the factory down but looked the other way when the owner continued production in the evening. Angry villagers took the law into their own hands, storming the factory one night and destroying it. When police arrived, the enraged farmers overturned two police vehicles. The owner eventually fled and villagers allege that the government helped him remove his equipment.

Yi says the local government gave medical examinations to about 1,000 people, but that it never released a report, only saying that cadmium levels in those examined 'exceeded acceptable levels'.

'In the beginning, they told people if they were sick,' she says, 'but later they stopped doing that because the problem was too big.'

On June 15, Human Rights Watch released a report that alleged government officials in provinces with high levels of industrial pollution were restricting access to lead testing, withholding and falsifying test results and denying children treatment, supporting Yi's claims of a cover-up in Xinma. The report also says victims' family members and journalists requesting information about the problem have been intimidated and harassed.

After the factory shut down, the government provided free bottles of drinking water, but for only three months.

'They said we could drink the water after three months, but we never knew if it was really safe,' says Yi, adding that she has been warned not to speak to outsiders about the problem. 'Local officials told us, 'We'll give you some compensation. Don't make too big a thing out of this.''

Liu Xiang, a lawyer with the Centre for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims, of the China University of Political Science and Law, in Beijing, who represents Bingjie's family, says no other people in the village sought legal resolution from the factory. 'What will the compensa- tion be?' he says. 'You can't get much money and maybe you won't get anything.'

He says some people may have been mollified by the government's claims that it would deal with the heavy-metal contamination of the land and promises of compensation for the loss of the use of their land.

'People here have shut their mouths tight, but as long as I still have breath, I'm going to struggle,' vows one young villager. 'If you let the people sue the owner of the factory, then the local and provincial environmental protection bureaus would all be implicated. The only thing to do would be to muffle the news.

'Officials protect each other. They're all connected. Everything here is decided by the mafia and local business interests,' adds the young man, who says he has had to keep a low profile after attempting to travel to Beijing to seek justice.

Joseph Amon, health and human rights director at Human Rights Watch, suggests these practices happen elsewhere, too. 'Parents, journalists and community activists who dare to speak out about lead are detained, harassed and ultimately silenced,' he says.

The villager, who appears nervous throughout the interview, says the only ones brave enough to speak out in Xinma are Bingjie's parents.

'Liu Guian is dirt poor and has nothing to lose,' the villager says. 'People threatened him and tried to buy him off, but he lost his daughter and he won't give up.'

Additional reporting by Ben Sin

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