They work hard turning plastic and metal into the latest electronic gadgets, but the Pearl River Delta’s factories are also manufacturing a major industrial disaster. Local workshops make close to a third of the world’s mobile phones and computers. But in the process they contaminate the region’s soil, rivers and coastline with heavy metals. That’s the alarming conclusion of a recent investigation carried out by several Chinese environmental NGOs.
A series of heavy metal poisonings caused outrage in China last year, sparking at least 32 ‘mass incidents’ (read ‘riots’) according to the Ministry of Environmental Protection. But in the most recent report, the authors decided to take a look particularly at what is happening in the Pearl River delta, China’s most important manufacturing hub. They focused on makers of batteries and ‘printed circuit boards’, the green plastic rectangles of electronic components found inside computers and mobile phones.
The by-product of the manufacturing process is an untreated toxic sludge that is discharged from factories into sewers and rivers. It’s a practice that poses a threat to the 47 million people who rely on the Pearl River and its tributaries for drinking water (including the residents of Hong Kong and Macau). The effluent includes copper, nickel, chromium and lead extracts – often with levels of acidity that magnifies their harm. Exposure can cause cancer, nerve damage and death.
Some factories play a game of cat-and-mouse with environmental regulators, bypassing wastewater treatment facilities to save on costs. In a surprise visit to a Dongguan subsidiary of Kingboard Chemical last October, government investigators found the Wannianfu Electronics plant simply piped effluent into adjoining sewers while the factory’s own waste treatment system was left idle. The printed circuit board maker was a supplier for Intel among others. Despite the failed inspection, another visit in May – this time by reporters from the China Youth Daily – confirmed that the practice hadn’t changed.
“What is very disturbing is that, once released, it is almost impossible to remove these hazardous substances from the environment,” explained Greenpeace scientist Kevin Brigden. The organisation released a similar report on polluting substances in the Pearl River late last year warning that it was “extremely difficult” for water treatment plants to neutralise them.
Even the government’s own surveys have found previously that seawater in the Pearl River estuary is heavily polluted and that 40% of the region’s agricultural land contains heavy metals extracts. “Today, even though we enjoy ‘cheap’ IT products, tomorrow our children will have to pay a thousand times the cost to clean rivers, lakes, soil, the ocean and even their own bodies of heavy metals,” was the recent assessment of prominent environmentalist Ma Jun in China Green News.
It’s something that is already hitting village life in the region. “People hesitate when they know the vegetables they’re about to buy come from our village,” explained one farmer near a Kingboard Chemical plant, “since our farmland is located right next to a huge chemical facility, they think they must be contaminated.”
Visitors are also warned against eating locally-caught fish. “Lots of fish have disappeared, they can’t survive in this water,” one Pearl River fisherman told Greenpeace investigators. “The fish that are still here taste like shampoo.”
The problem has also become a serious concern in Beijing. “In order to protect the environment and guarantee public health, avoiding excessive emissions of heavy metals will be on the top of our agenda this year,” promised Zhou Shengxian, minister for environmental protection.
The authors of the study followed up their report by sending questionnaires to major electronics companies about their suppliers. The ultimate objective, they say, is to persuade consumers to make informed buying decisions.Wrongly discharged
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