Pollution Turns China Village into Cancer Cluster
BEIJING The residents of Huangmenying village are poor, even by Chinese standards, but more and more are opting to splash out for bottled water rather than drink from local wells.
Well water, they say, gives you cancer.
Their fears are backed by the unusually large number of cancer cases in this village of fewer than 2,500 in central Henan province. The village gets most of its water from a fetid tributary of the Huai River, probably the most polluted stretch of water in China.
Kong Heqin, a 30-year-old woman suffering cancer of the throat and intestine, cannot afford the luxury of filters and pumps water that stinks of rotten eggs and contains grainy sediment from a communal well into a red plastic pail.
Three operations to control the cancer have left Kong unable to pass solid waste, with a ropy scar snaking up her abdomen. She can feel tumors still growing in her belly, but has no more money for treatment.
"I have spent 70,000 yuan ($8,700) on three operations and I can't borrow any more," Kong said.
"My husband said we could sell our older son to another couple looking to adopt to raise the money, but I refused. I would rather die than sell my son."
Kong's husband, like many men from the village, has gone to Shanghai to earn money as a laborer, but only makes enough to cover the basics for his wife and their two school-age sons.
Local activist Huo Daishan says 118 people have died of cancer in Huangmenying since 1990.
Huo is convinced the deaths are directly linked to the rampant pollution of the Huai River and its local branch, the Shaying, which he says have been poisoned by tanneries, paper mills and an MSG factory, all of which enjoy protection from local officials.
"Once the factories are able to get the local government involved and combine their interests, it becomes hard to get a grip on the situation. That is why it's been so hard to solve this problem in recent years," Huo told Reuters.
Local protectionism and industrial pollution are hardly isolated problems in China.
Top officials have said 90 percent of the rivers that flow through Chinese urban centers are severely polluted, and some 300 million people nationwide have no access to clean water.
Beijing has acknowledged the crisis and launched a "clear water for the people" campaign, but if decade-old efforts to clean up the Huai alone are any indication, there is a long way to go.
This spring, central authorities conceded that tightened regulations and a reported 60 billion yuan ($7.4 billion) invested in improving the Huai, which supplies water to one sixth of China's 1.3 billion people, had done little to stem the tide of pollution.
Huo, a former county official and photo journalist who has documented the Huai's decline, said the water had improved to some extent under the government push, but at times remained as foul as ever.
"When the problem is more severe, the water is black, like soy sauce, with a lot of foam. It has a noxious smell," he said.
Tests have shown the Huai contains dangerous amounts of metals, ammonia and oils.
China's lax environmental protection rules are also at fault. The tanneries and MSG factories that have ruined the river were allowed to move in from overseas after being banned by foreign governments because of their pollution, Huo said.
"A lot of industries are not accepting responsibility," he said. "They refuse to clean up their waste and just discharge back into the river water they take out."
In other parts of China, polluting factories and unsympathetic officials have sparked riots by outraged residents.
But in Huangmenying, people have not risen up -- they have died or fled.
Along a red brick path dubbed "cancer street," weeds grow wild in front of empty, boarded-up houses, their owners either victims of cancer or run off to safer places.
Those that have stayed cannot afford to leave or have found some way to cope. And they buy bottled water at such a rate that village store owner Lao Chen can barely keep enough in stock, selling around 100 big bottles a day.