Toll of cancer misery rises in Shandong's petrochemical villages
Shandong villagers convinced pollution from petrochemical plants that ring their homes is behind surge in tumours, but feel powerless to fight it
It was a cold, gloomy early spring day in Jinnan village, Shandong province - fitting weather for a ceremony commemorating the death of a local man who had recently died of lung cancer.
A young couple, who wished only to be known by their surnames Ma and Sha, dressed in white mourning robes to conduct the event last Thursday.
"My father-in-law was only 65," said Sha, 33. "He did not smoke much, but when he was diagnosed with lung cancer in December, it was already in the terminal stage."
She said her father-in-law was strong enough to work in the fields until September, when his health began to fail. "He was not able to eat much after that," she said.
Both Sha and Ma, her husband, say pollution from the petrochemical plants that surround their village may be a factor in the rising prevalence of cancer in recent years. Sha's father died of stomach cancer a few years ago.
"Too many villagers here develop cancer," said Ma. "Almost every family has a cancer patient."
Jinnan is one of nine villages under the jurisdiction of Jinling Hui ethnic township in Zibo, a prefecture-level city in the centre of Shandong. Jinling Hui town is entirely located within the 22-square-kilometre Qilu Chemical Industrial Zone, according to the township government.
Since 2002 the area has been co-developed by the provincial government and the giant China Petrochemical Corporation, or Sinopec. But the history of the industry in the area dates back to 1966, when Qilu Petrochemical moved into Zibo.
The industrial zone is an important source of revenue for the province. In 2010 its output reached 71.5 billion yuan (HK$88.6 billion). A billboard lists details of 26 companies in the area, each with annual revenue of more than 20 million yuan, which produce all manner of essential chemicals for plastics, coatings, pharmaceuticals, pesticides, ceramics and other goods.
But the development has encroached on local villages, which are now separated only by a road from a large stretch of chemical plants. Tanks laden with hazardous or flammable chemicals line the road. Various unpleasant odours fill the air as you drive by the different factories.
On the other side of the road, Jinling's villages are quiet. The streets and small alleys are almost empty, with the iron gates on most homes securely locked.
"Many have left Jinling because of the pollution," Ma said. He and his wife now live and work in central Zibo, but their mothers remain in Jinling. It is a common pattern across rural China, where young people work in the city, leaving behind the children and elderly.
The couple's stable income was a blessing for Ma's father, who was able to get treatment from a renowned hospital in the provincial capital, Jinan.
Yang Hongtao, 64 and Bi Qingshui, 55, in Jinling Wucun (or Jinling No 5 village) are not as lucky. Both were diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in early February. Oxygen and painkillers are the only therapy the two men can afford.
Yang, lying half naked in bed, can barely talk and is exhausted after only a few words. His ribs are visible on his emaciated frame as he gasps for air. The cancer has spread to his liver and bones. His daughter Yang Lijie says there is not much that can be done, except to give him oxygen when he has difficulty breathing.
Bi is in an even worse situation. Curled up on a grimy bed, he has already lost the strength to talk and is permanently on oxygen.
Bi's 29-year-old son begged a barefoot doctor - a fellow villager who runs a small traditional Chinese medicine clinic - to give his father an injection of atropine sulfate, convinced it could help reduce the inflammation and relieve pain.
The son said the family was too poor to get a doctor's prescription for the drug, which he was forced to obtain through underground channels. He had to quit work to look after his dying father, leaving the family in even more financial difficulty.
"[The cancer] progressed really fast. He could still sit outside and enjoy sunshine before the Spring Festival," the son said. "In a few days I will be the last one left in this family." His mother died a few years ago.
It is only a matter of time before Yang and Bi join the growing list of cancer victims being compiled by the villagers.
In Jinling Wucun alone, villagers told the South China Morning Post that at least 20 people, aged between 46 and 80, had died of cancer in recent years. Lung cancer was the most prevalent, followed by cancers of the stomach, liver and oesophagus.
Almost all cancer patients in the village suffered a similar fate: the tumours already measured between 6cm or 7cm when they were diagnosed - too late for an operation - and they grew so fast that the patients died in about a year.
The wife of one such patient, Zhang Jixin, who died of lung cancer at the age of 67 last year, said: "Cancer is becoming so common, just like catching flu. Even the doctors at the Jinan hospitals were surprised and asked, 'What on earth is happening in Jinling?'."
Villagers are increasingly convinced that pollution from the nearby petrochemical plants is behind the growing cancer rate. They say the factories release foul-smelling "toxic gas" every night after 10pm.
The smell is sometimes so pungent it is impossible to open the windows, even on the hottest summer days. The villagers are also fear that factory waste is contaminating groundwater.
Not far from the Jinling villages, a stone tablet erected by Zibo's water conservation bureau marks a 149-square-kilometre protection zone for the town's drinking water. It stipulates that no new industrial projects should be built within the zone and all existing factories should meet emission standards.
However, part of the Qilu Chemical Industrial Zone is located right in the protection zone, while official documents show new projects are still planned before 2015.
A research paper published in the bimonthly journal Ground Water by two researchers from the Zibo hydrology bureau in 2010 said tests showed groundwater in the area had "relatively high concentrations of petroleum and benzene".
But apart from making private complaints, the Jinling villagers say they are helpless. They have begun to accept this state of affairs as their fate, as they know there is no way the government will relocate the factories or the entire township.
"The factories have been here for more than 30 years … people say the pollution causes cancer, but who knows? What else can we do?" said Yang Lijie.
The Jinling villagers' plight is but one small example of the price in public health that mainlanders are paying for rapid industrialisation. Last month alone, mainland media ran reports on other cancer villages in Henan, Hunan and Jiangsu provinces.
In a document released in February, the Ministry of Environmental Protection made a rare acknowledgement of the existence of cancer villages due to chemical pollution. But officials are still reluctant to admit the link between rising cancer rates and rampant pollution. An official from the Shenqiu county environmental protection bureau in Henan province dismissed media reports of a local cancer village as "merely hype".
Professor Yang Gonghuan, deputy director of the Chinese Centre for Disease Control, said confirming the relationship between cancer and pollution would require complicated scientific proof of cause and effect.
"Usually, a high occurrence of cancer will take place about a decade after a sudden increase in pollution, and there needs to be a geographical overlap of pollution and outbreak of cancers before scientists can decide if there is a causal relationship," said Yang.
The scientist conducted a five-year study along the Huai river in central China in 2005, and confirmed that the high occurrence of cancer in villages in the river basin was linked to water pollution.
For scientists like Yang, finding the link between cancer and pollution might demand lengthy and rigorous research, but for Jinling villagers who have lost loves ones or caring for those in their final days, there is little doubt.
In the neighbouring village of Liuhang, Wang, a local farmer ploughs a tiny parcel of land, despite the sour smell emanating from the chemical plants less than 100 metres away.
"You can see for yourself that we're literally surrounded by chemical plants on three sides, but what can we do?" he said. "I still need to grow maize to make congee."