Mar 01, 2013 06:26 PM

The Poison Eaters of Gansu Province


(Beijing) -- Barely any rainfall on a bone dry landscape has always made crop farming in the western province of Gansu a rough gamble between the sky and local irrigation policies. But now, farmers reap only sorrow from fields that experts say is severely contaminated with cadmium and other heavy metals.

A survey conducted between 2006 to 2010 by the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) and the Ministry of Land and Resources is believed by many soil pollution experts to be the most comprehensive inspection of China's land pollution to date. But the central government has refused to release the results of the survey, on grounds that the information is an issue of national security. In 2006, the MEP stated roughly 10 million hectares of farmland had been contaminated by heavy metals, including 2.2 million hectares of land affected through water pollution.

One farmer named Wu Zonglu said land experts that visited from Beijing declared that the soil in his village of Miqin to be hazardous. He said they told him that eating produce farmed from the soil was tantamount to suicide.

Heavy metals are absorbed in the stomach and stored in the bones. The cadmium moves slowly – so slowly that when Wu began to feel bone pains two decades ago, no one thought it would eventually take over his thigh bones and then his lower back. His wife has suffered more – she can hardly hold her hands outstretched.

Caixin found that people in dozens of villages along the Dongdagou, the biggest canal for sewage discharge in Baiyin City have complained of similar health problems for decades. The canal is used as a dumping ground for local factories and streams across 200 hectares of land. When villagers visit the hospital, they are diagnosed with osteoporosis or hyperostosis. But they've never received an official medical explanation as to why so many people suffer from the same set of ailments.

The descriptions of the bone pain echo one of the most prominent cases of mass cadmium poisoning, which occurred in 1950s Japan. An illness called the "itai-itai," or the "ouch-ouch" disease in Japanese, in Toyama Prefecture, was eventually traced to the consumption of rice containing excessive levels of cadmium. Crops irrigated with polluted water led to contaminated food.

Some government researchers openly deny the existence of "itai-itai" in China. Shang Qi, a research fellow at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention has been following health problems caused by land pollution for more than 20 years. He says that while soil contamination is a problem, there are no studies that have confirmed large-scale cadmium poisoning.

In many of China's arid regions, wastewater is used for irrigation. According to a national survey on irrigation water quality conducted in the 1980s, 86 percent of irrigation water was substandard. The study also found that 65 percent of wastewater used for irrigation contained excessive levels of heavy metals, including mercury and cadmium. Soil experts say that the use of wastewater for irrigation is still a widespread practice.

Meanwhile, the bone pains have hit almost everyone in Minqin village and all of the villagers share the same description of the disease. The pain can come at any time of the year. Villagers describe a coldness that comes to the joints, which then spreads to the rest of the body.

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