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China's Air Pollution Gives Rise to "Cancer Villages"

Mar 19, 2013 01:56 PM EDT
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China's air pollution took center stage mid-January when Beijing literally flew off the chart on the Air Quality Index, exceeding the 1 to 500 scale by 255 points. This wasn't the only chart Beijing defied at the time: the city's particle matter (PM) levels shot all the way to 291, nearly 270 points higher than what the World Health Organization deems safe.

However, China's air pollution problem isn't new, and its citizens know it.

While it rejects the term as official, the Chinese environmental ministry did acknowledge publically the existence of what people are calling "cancer villages."

"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,' " reads the country's twelfth five-year plan, released Feb. 20.

There are approximately 460 of them, and according to a study published by the National Institute of Health, in one village of 1,200, between 80 to 100 people died of cancer in just five years. The China Business Journal reports the village sued the chemical company deemed responsible and in response the firm offered 70 yuan, or $11, per villager as settlement.

And it's not just the air that's a problem: China's water pollution problems are evidenced in the chemical spill that polluted the Zhouzang River with nine tons of aniline - a potential carcinogen. The spill was not reported until six days after it took place and went unnoticed by many until dead fish were found in the river.

In all, deaths due to cancer increased by 80 percent in China between 1970- and 2004, according to a study published in the Japanese Journal of Clinical Oncology.

Fortunately, in the face of such numbers the Chinese government is taking an apparent step forward in addressing the issue. It recently proposed amendments to the national Air Pollution Prevention and Control Law for the first time in over a decade.

Dr. Junjie Zhang, an associate professor of environmental economics at the University of California, told The International he believes the problem will not be solved until China is able to move beyond greenhouse gases both on an industrial and residential level.

Whether or not the latest of China's many five-year plans will be effective can only be evidence in time. However, as Ma Jun, a leading Chinese environmentalist told the Telegraph, "The recognition of the existence of problems is the very first step and precondition for us to really start solving these problems."

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