Toxic lessons

Health scandals at two schools might hasten first soil pollution law


Three years ago there was widespread concern at reports that over 120 brands of rice, the staple diet for much of southern China, were tainted by cadmium (see WiC195).

Although troubling, the news was not without precedent. In 2011 Caixin Weekly ran a report that cited an investigation that found 10% of tested rice grains from 2002 were said to be polluted with cadmium, and the proportion was also 10% for tests from 2008.

“Cadmium, arsenic and other heavy metals are discharged with sewage by mining operations and make their way into rice paddies,” the magazine suggested. “The problem is decades old.”

Despite the warnings, China is yet to ratify a national law to regulate the problem of toxic soil. Legislation is currently in process and was due to reach the NPC Standing Committee for approval next year. Perhaps its passage will be speeded up by two more soil scandals, this time at schools in Jiangsu province.

On April 17 it emerged that almost 500 students at a campus of Changzhou Foreign Language School were suffering from rashes and nose bleeds. On further examination, some were found to be suffering from low white blood cell counts and, in some cases, even from cancer.

The suspected cause of their illnesses is a barren patch of land adjacent to their new campus, which until 2010 had been occupied by three chemical factories.

The new school buildings opened in September 2015 and students started to complain of unexplained sickness only a few weeks later. In mid-January, following a tip-off from a former worker at the factory (revealing it had dumped waste at the site) the government ordered an investigation.

Gao Yuefeng, director of the local environmental protection bureau, announced that a search had uncovered nothing serious. “We dug 30 holes and spent Rmb1 million ($154,233) on a 15-day investigation, but didn’t find any solid chemical waste,” he explained.

The local government also reported in February that regular checks had shown that the soil and surrounding air was non-harmful.

By now parents of students at the school had taken matters into their own hands and were paying for third-party reviews of the site. And when the state broadcaster CCTV broke the news of the student sickness this month, it announced that more recent tests of the soil had unearthed carcinogenic toxins that were 100,000 times the expected level.

The latest revelations saw attention turn back to the regulatory bodies that had failed to detect the potential health hazards. The role of the school’s bosses also came in for review. Beijing News has reported that prior to constructing the new campus, the school commissioned an environmental assessment of the area. The review approved the project despite warning that some of the neighbourhood’s soil and ground water could threaten student health. The final assessment simply advised that the school “be conscious of the risks”.

The school decided to proceed with the new campus nonetheless (indeed, construction at the site had begun seven months before the environmental report was issued, local media has claimed). Beijing News also points out that the project contravenes environmental agency standards, which maintain that schools must be at least 300 metres from any polluting elements (the waste site is only 100 metres away).

A few days after news of that scandal, students at another school in Jiangsu province were reported to be suffering from similar ailments. According to ThePaper.cn, three factories in the adjoining area were immediately shut down. But the media has also been reporting on other instances where the response hasn’t been as swift.

One of the factory owners embroiled in the Changzhou scandal has been accused of burying waste on three other occasions. Beijing News says law suits surrounding the factories waste disposal methods have spanned three years.

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