Beijing unveils blueprint to control health risks of toxic chemicals
For first time, policy blueprint links pollution to rising health threats in industrial areas
The central government has unveiled its first blueprint to control the environmental and health risks of toxic chemicals, and for the first time officially acknowledged the existence of "cancer clusters" due to such pollution.
The blueprint, covering the period from 2011 to 2015 and posted on the website of the Ministry of Environmental Protection, admits that excessive levels of chemical pollutants are already found in the country's major rivers and lakes, and even in animal and human bodies.
"In recent years, toxic and hazardous chemical pollution has caused many environmental disasters, cutting off drinking water supplies, and even leading to severe health and social problems such as 'cancer villages'," the blueprint said.
Between 2008 and 2011, more than a half of the 568 environmental emergencies dealt with by the ministry were related to chemicals, official statistics show.
Calling the blueprint "a significant first step", Liu Jianguo , an associate professor at Peking University, said chemical pollution on the mainland had become "the most severe problem" and one that government could no longer ignore.
Mainland officials were previously reluctant to link pollution levels with rising cancer rates in industrial areas.
Some chemical pollutants can travel long distances and accumulate in the environment and human bodies, disturbing endocrine and immune systems and even causing cancer.
However, the production and use of such chemicals on the mainland has become so widespread due to rapid and chaotic industrial expansion over the past three decades that the government has yet to come to terms with the risks.
A 2010 survey of more than 40,000 plants in the petrochemical, chemical and pharmaceutical industries, conducted by the ministry, found 40 per cent posed a severe threat to public health, the blueprint said.
For instance, 23 per cent of the plants were located five kilometres or less upstream of drinking water sources or agricultural land. About 15,000 were near residential areas.
But such information is not yet available for other industrial sectors, with the blueprint admitting that no official statistics were available on the number and location of chemical emission sources, or their impact on human health.
The blueprint aims to establish a sound information system on chemical production and use by 2015 and start to register all enterprises involved in producing, using, transporting and discharging hazardous chemical pollutants, following international practice.
It also lists 58 types of chemicals that will be under specific control, including those that could damage human health or cause environmental accidents.
Wu Yixiu , a Beijing-based Greenpeace campaigner, said it was the first time the authorities had proposed monitoring the environmental impact of chemicals.
However, experts are not optimistic about the impact of the blueprint because the production of some chemicals that were banned or restricted in developed countries was still rising on the mainland, with manufacturing having moved to China. Wu said the blueprint still failed to set out a timetable to phase out some highly toxic chemicals, and that would send a stronger signal to producers and users than merely putting them on a watch list.