The phrase “cancer village” gets used frequently to describe certain regions in China, but what does it really mean and how are cancer villages really defined? Lee Liu, in Environment Magazine, has taken a hard look into cancer villages in China and posits that the problem is real and even larger than most media accounts have portrayed. Interestingly, Liu examines how the cancer village phenomenon has developed in the Chinese media.
China Central Television (CCTV) and Shenghuo Shibao (Life Times) were among the earliest Chinese media to report on cancer villages. Their 1998 reports gave an account on industrial water pollution on the Hai River flowing through Tianjin and neighboring Hebei, where COD (chemical oxygen demand) was over 1,300 mg; it requires only 25 mg to downgrade water to Grade 5, the lowest level in the five-grade Chinese water quality classification. In Xiaojizhuang Village in Hebei, one out of 10 people had died of cancer, while fertile fields became barren. More and more cancer villages have been reported by some well-known Chinese media sources, including Nanfang Dushi (Southern Metropolis) Daily, People’s Daily, China Daily, Xinjin (Beijing) News, China Youth Daily, CCTV, provincial TVs and newspapers, and government and media Internet sites.
Fenghuang Zhoukan (Phoenix Weekly), a Hong Kong weekly journal, carried a cover story on cancer villages in its April 2009 issue. That report caused strong reactions in China after the reporter posted the article on his blog that included a list of 71 cancer villages from 32 reports. The Chinese search engine Baidu published reports on 18 cancer villages. These cancer villages were Google-mapped by Doubleleaf, providing a visual version of cancer villages in many parts of China. The Tianya Community Website published a collection of cancer villages believed to have been caused by industrial pollution. The collection includes 207 villages in 108 counties. Geography teacher and Eastern China Normal University Graduate, Yuefei Sun’s undergraduate thesis listed 247 cancer villages from 126 counties in 27 provinces.
Lee also provides several case studies of prominent cancer villages.
Wongyuan County in [Guangdong’s] Mountainous region is home to one of the worst cases of cancer villages in China. Iron and copper sulfide strip mining since 1970 has resulted in serious soil erosion and landslides that have dumped cancer-causing cadmium, lead, and other heavy metals into the water system and soil down the mountain. A dozen kilometers away from the mines, lush riverside agricultural settlements in the valley became cancer villages…
So it is being done? Certainly not enough. According to a lawyer from a legal aid organization based in China, efforts have been made to sue the major polluter for years but with no success. The people have lost hope that the courts can provide any real justice and the local procuratorate (government prosecutors) has no interest in supporting a case to stop the pollution or win compensation for victims, even though it is quite likely the case would be successful if the procuratorate was supportive.