Environment

A city of bad elements

How mercury has poisoned Wanshan

In Wanshan they have a saying: Don’t drink the water, and don’t eat the vegetables.

And with good reason. Until recently, Wanshan was the centre of the mercury industry, having first discovered deposits of the liquid metal in the 7th century. At its peak, the city in Guizhou province produced 70% of the world’s mercury; it was still generating 30,000 tonnes of the stuff between 1950 and 1980.

However, by the mid-eighties the deposits were running out and in 2002 the main mine, Guizhou Mercury, went bankrupt.

But its legacy lives on for the 60,000 residents of Wanshan, reports Caijing magazine.

Apart from the extensive tunneling – “one could say Wanshan is built on an excavation hole on the verge of collapse,” admits a local official – there is the pollution from mercury discharges.

Liu Shuiping, a former director of Wanshan’s Environmental Protection Board, estimates that at least 350 tonnes of metallic mercury were released into the local environment, with catastrophic results.

Caijing points out that Guizhou Mercury’s emissions exceeded safety standards by “thousands of times”. The pollution of local water supplies and paddy fields is said by the government to exceed safety standards by a more modest (although, presumably, potentially very harmful) 36 times.

This means the city’s residents now import 90% of their vegetables. The government had allowed residents to drink the water till 2004 – when it became clear that Wanshan had the highest incidence of lithiasis (calcium stones that form inside bodily organs) in the country. Cancer is also rife. Official estimates are that 4.18% of residents have died from mercury poisoning.

With its main industry now gone, the city is an economic disaster, as well as an environmental one.

Sadly, it is not alone. Reports emerged this week of another toxic problem: lead poisoning of children in Shaanxi province.

Villagers who live near the Dongling Lead and Zinc Smelting Factory have complained that 84% of the children have tested positive for lead poisoning, according to Xinhua.

The families were supposed to be relocated ahead of the plant’s construction in 2004; but only a quarter of households have so far been moved.

And it gets worse. Those families that have been moved to a new ‘safer’ location – a village called Yuanshang that is 1.3km from the smelter – say that children there also have excessive lead levels too.

“It’s not safe here,” parent Zhang Yongxiang told China Daily. “So it’s not appropriate to move the rest of the families here.”

Lead poisoning damages the nervous, urinary and reproductive systems. Among children it can lead to learning difficulties and even death. The government has been treating the children with lead-removing medicines at a local hospital. So far, parental demands for compensation have been denied.

Keeping Track:In WiC 27, we mentioned cases of lead and mercury poisoning. This week there were riots in the Fujianese town of Fengwei, as locals protested that an oil refinery and a tanning factory had poisoned their drinking water. Around 10,000 citizens protested outside a sewage plant, claiming that the contaminated water was a major cancer risk. The government sent in 2,000 riot police on Monday evening, after protesters tried to sabotage the plant and took two police officers hostage.(4 September 2009)


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