Oct 09, 2013 05:33 PM

Sip of Death Plagues Cancerous River Villages


(Beijing) -- Cancer is claiming fewer lives these days, and Dr. Wang Shiren says he's been caring for a steadily declining number of patients suffering from gastrointestinal disorders.

Yet a decades-long health calamity continues to grip Huangmengying, a Henan Province community of about 2,500 straddling the Huai River, where Dr. Wang practices and researchers have been monitoring conditions for at least eight years.

Despite tangible evidence of progress in cleaning up the polluted water blamed for countless deaths and disease, Huangmengying's name is still on a grim list of so-called "cancer villages" in the river basin region.

That list is familiar to Yang Gonghuan, a Beijing-based professor of public health at the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences who used to serve as a deputy director at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Yang and her team have spent years monitoring the polluted river and severe cancer rates among local people.

The initial report from the government-funded research, which has already spanned some eight years, was published in June with findings that, for the first time, officially linked high rates of cancer to the river water. Polluted water, the study said, may be directly blamed for several especially prevalent cancers of the gastrointestinal system in the area, including those that attack the esophagus, colon and rectum. Their research is continuing.

"From the perspective of environmental medicine, polluted drinking water may be a direct cause of gastrointestinal cancers," said Yang.

And according to local doctors, congenital disease is common among the children born to parents who live in the cancer villages. High levels of babies born blind, deaf, mute or with heart disease have been reported.

Yang's study mapped 40 counties in the river basin where serious water pollution problems were found between 1997 and 2009. The counties are scattered across three provinces – Henan, Anhnui and Shandong.

Shenqiu County, which includes Huangmengying, is identified as one of the most polluted areas. Huangmengying is about 15 kilometers from the county's center to the south of the Shaying River, the Huai's largest tributary.

Shenqiu authorities took action in 2005 by connecting village water supplies to 47 newly dug wells. Twenty villages with the highest cancer rates were among those benefiting.

The decision to dig deep-water wells complemented a March 2005 decision by the State Council, China's cabinet, to promote projects that can guarantee safe drinking water in rural areas nationwide.

By 2006, a number of cancer-plagued villages in Anhui and Henan were seeing improvements thanks to the government initiative. For instance, the Henan government agreed to spend 240 million yuan to improve public water systems in 800 villages along the Huai and Hai rivers.

Better water also started flowing into drinking water taps in Huangmengying, which helped to reduce Dr. Wang's patient load.

But many brutal years preceded the improvements, and the death toll could be mounting for years to come.

Huangmengying villagers said the first local victim was diagnosed with cancer in 1986. Afterward, even though no one knew why, the village's cancer rate rose rapidly.

Clear, then Dark

In 1990, 12 people in Huangmengying died of cancer. And in 2001, Zhang Guizhi became the 83rd villager to succumb: Cancer of the esophagus killed her before she turned 50.

Huo Daishan, an environmental activist and former journalist who has closely followed the tragic story of the cancer villages, remembers meeting Zhang while she laid in bed a few days before dying. He offered her a drink of water and, ironically, she asked whether the water could cure her disease.

Huo was born in Shenqiu County 60 years ago and remembers the Shaying used to run beautifully clear. Over the years, though, the river gradually turned cloudy, then dark. People in the region started getting sick. Huo's mother died in 1974 from colorectal cancer.

The central government's Ministry of Health said cancer rates were below average between 1973 and 1975 in the Huai River basin, including Shenqiu and nearby counties, when the river was clean.

Huo worked as a journalist and in the 1990s started conducting independent research on the cancer outbreak along the Huai and its tributaries. He eventually quit his job to give all his energy to study what he believed was a direct correlation between toxins in the water and cancer deaths.

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