Cancer Villages: Toxic Tipping Point?

By Debra Tan, Ying Shen 9 May, 2013

We reviewed 255 media reports of such villages to look at their spread & industries that may be responsible

124 or almost 50% are in Hebei, Henan, Guangdong, Anhui & Jiangsu; includes 3 of China's top GDP provinces
49% of the villages are in the Dry 11 and Hebei, Henan & Jiangsu are also the top 4 farmers
12 cases linked to metals & mining; MEP names 7 key polluting industries for closer monitoring

Cancer villages are not new in China but recently they have gained significant attention after being linked by the government for the first time to environmental pollution. News outlets and social media are now reporting in detail on the cancer clusters and the extent of the problem. We went through media reports and found at least 255 reported cases from as early as 2001.

The spread of cancer villages

Although this is by no means the complete list, these 255 media reported cases were split as follows:
Cancer Villages Report Incidents - Top Provinces
Hebei has the highest number of incidents at 42, followed by 35 in Henan, 26 in Guangdong, 25 in Anhui and 21 in Jiangsu, giving us an idea of the geographical spread of these villages.
At a glance, we also notice the following:

  • Guangdong & Jiangsu are also the #1 & #2 contributors to GDP in 2011 and Henan #5. Together these 3 provinces contribution to GDP is 25% – raising concerns over GDP growth at the expense of health;
  • Guangdong, Jiangsu & Henan are also drive industry producing almost 20% of the industrial output of the country;

Cancer Villages Report Incidents & Water Availability

  • Separately, Hebei, Henan and Jiangsu are also amongst the Dry 11. So not only are they water scarce, this may be exacerbate as they may also be facing toxic pollution in rural areas. In fact, 49% of the reported incidents are in water scarce regions.
  • These same provinces (Hebei, Henan & Jiangsu) are also amongst China’s top four farmers, producing 20% of China’s agricultural output value – should we start worrying about the food we eat if the source of pollution is indeed water and/or the soil?

So what’s the source? Linking pollution to cancer

The problem here is that the media reports are thin and only 136 out of 255 (53%) mention the potential causes of pollution that could have resulted in “cancer villages”. Of these 136 villages, around a third of these attribute the cause to toxic water pollution.
For years, cancer clusters in China had been much whispered about nationally. Local people petitioned with evidence and there was some scattered press attention. But the central government steadfastly refused to acknowledge any connection between environmental pollution and disease.
In 2005, the Ministry of Health sent an expert group to look at key areas of the Huai River Basin and conduct an epidemiological study of the prevalence of malignant tumors among the local population. Preliminary findings suggested there might be a connection between cancer morbidity and water pollution in Huai River Basin villages. In 2006, Prof. Yang Gonghuan, Deputy Director of Chinese Center of Disease Control and Prevention, was charged with studying the possible linkage and in 2010 he said he had five years of research essentially confirmed this.

As early as 2001, the Guangdong-based Nan Fang Daily identified Shangba as a “cancer village” with water pollution from nearby mining operations…
…cancer morbidity in the village was nine times higher than the national average.

Press attention has been sporadic, but in 2001 Guangdong-based Nan Fang Daily identified Shangba as a “cancer village” with water pollution from nearby mining operations. According to the paper, villagers had been contaminated by heavy metals such as cadmium, lead and chromium. The cancer morbidity in the village was nine times higher than the national average. People of this particular community had spent years submitting petitions asking for help.
As interest in their plight grew, it became clear that they were among a growing number of similarly afflicted communities nationwide who were also petitioning for support. Some of these petitions finally started to be heard and in 2008, the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) announced China would invest over RMB500 million to clean up more than 600 of the most polluted villages in major river basins. At the same time, the first programmatic document guiding China’s environment and health work, the National Environment and Health Action Plan (2007-2015), stated there would be effective control of environmental pollution around the most serious cancer villages.
Two years after that plan was launched, in 2009 the Phoenix Weekly reported in a cover story on more than 100 cancer villages in China, pointing out that they had sacrificed health for environmentally unfriendly economic growth. Recent data shows that deaths from cancer in China rose by 80 percent between 1970 and 2004 and now accounts for 25 percent of deaths in cities and 21 percent in rural areas.

From whispers to official recognition

Then in 2013, it was no longer in the shadows but brought to the forefront through a series of events culminating in the “official recognition” of these cancer villages.
In January this year, the National Cancer Registration Center released the “China Cancer Registration Annual Report 2012” covering 72 monitoring points in 24 provinces of 85 million people. According to the report, every minute in China, six people are diagnosed with cancer. This is twice the rate of that in the United States.
Then, in February, ahead of the National People’s Congress, a map of cancer villages was disseminated widely on the internet identifying over 200 cancer villages in mainland China. This was considered the conservative result of an investigation by independent, grassroots sources. Although linkages between cancer and environmental pollution are hard to establish definitively, in the same month of February, the MEP released the first-ever 12th Five-Year Plan on Prevention and Control of Environmental Risks of Chemicals. The document officially recognizes existence of “Cancer Villages” in China, where relatively high incidences of the disease occur in areas of significant industrial and agricultural contamination of drinking and irrigation water. The ministry wrote in the plan that environmental incidents such as leakage of un/mistreated toxic chemicals could be a cause of cancer.

A tipping point – people, cancer, limited water resources & food safety could rock the boat

The bottom line here is that the villagers believe toxic wastewater, air and soil to be the source of cancer. They believe the pollutants are from chemical factories, mines, paper mills, steel factories etc. Unfortunately there are few comprehensive monitoring records available so often it is unclear just what chemicals are being discharged. Lack of evidences makes it harder for the villagers to seek redress in courts.
To give you an idea of the variety of sources, out of the 255 media report incidents we reviewed, some of the causes of pollution mentioned were:

  • 2 linked to pesticides
  • 7 linked to chemicals
  • 1 linked to pulp & paper mill
  • 12 linked to metals & mining
  • 1 linked to plastics production
  • 1 linked to shoe manufacturing

“we don’t have a clear prohibition against waste water emission to deep ground water sources.”

Professor Wang Canfa, CCTV program

There is general and growing consensus in China – in part fueled by public protests – that pollution needs to be dealt with. The rise of social media and the allowance of unsubstantiated claims of pollution have focused the public’s attention on this. Accusations of paper mills and chemical plants injecting their hazardous chemical waste underground, contaminating the ground water add to public furor. Although the accuracy of the report could not be verified, Prof. Wang Canfa said in a CCTV program recently, “we don’t have a clear prohibition against waste water emission to deep ground water sources.”
The tipping point has come. The government is feeling the pressure to balance economic growth with a better and healthier environment and reacting. Not only in issuing new plans but officially recognizing the cancer villages and cash rewards put forth by some provincial environmental protection bureaus for whistleblowing on industrial pollution are all seen as a positive step-forward.

Will industry suffer if the “iron fist” is employed to rein in heavy metals?

Li Keqiang had said during the CCPC meetings that “We need to face the situation and enforce the law with an iron fist”. It appears that the new guard is indeed moving in the right direction …
Back in 2011, the 12FYP already includes new water pollution targets for ammonium nitrate, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead and mercury for the first time. However, little information was released as to how this would be tackled until early this year. Reinforcing the belief that the government intends to act against pollution, the MEP in February 2013 said it would control the use and discharge of 58 harmful chemicals, listing them according to categories and their levels of potential harm to the environment. The following key polluting industries will also see strengthened monitoring:

  • oil processing, coking and nuclear fuel,
  • Chemicals and chemical products, metals,
  • Pharm chemicals,
  • Chemical fabrics production,
  • Metals & rolling processing,
  • Textiles, and
  • New coal chemical industries.

Should industries reliant on chemicals as raw material input such as pharmaceuticals, fashion and the coal industry pay more attention to these shifts in public opinion? We think so. Pollution incidents may not just be the new canary for the coal industry but other industries too. The genie is out of the bottle: the public are now aware of pollution & related health risks and are seriously concerned. Social stability is of paramount importance. Recognition of cancer villages is just the first part. Now, the clean-up starts. If you are invested or source raw material inputs from one of the above industry, it is time to consider whether you could be flattened or swept to higher heights by this “iron fist”.

Deeper analysis for coal and textiles can be found in “Water for Coal: Thirsty Miners?” & “Investors Beware of Blackholes & Blacklists”.
Don’t know what China’s been up to on the waterfront? Check out our summary of key water policies between 2011-2013

Debra Tan
Author: Debra Tan
Debra heads the CWR team and has steered the CWR brand from idea to a leader in the water risk conversation globally. Reports she has written for and with financial institutions analyzing the impact of water risks on the Power, Mining, Agricultural and Textiles industries have been considered groundbreaking and instrumental in understanding not just China’s but future global water challenges. One of these led the fashion industry to nominate CWR as a finalist for the Global Leadership Awards in Sustainable Apparel; another is helping to build consensus toward water risk valuation. Debra is a prolific speaker on water risk delivering keynotes, participating in panel discussions at water prize seminars, numerous investor & industry conferences as well as G2G and academic forums. Before venturing into “water”, she worked in finance, spending over a decade as a chartered accountant and investment banker specializing in M&A and strategic advisory. Debra left banking to pursue her interest in photography and also ran and organized philanthropic and luxury holidays for a small but global private members travel network She has lived and worked in Beijing, HK, KL, London, New York and Singapore and spends her spare time exploring glaciers in Asia.
Read more from Debra Tan →
Ying Shen
Author: Ying Shen
Ying is China Water Risk’s consultant based in Beijing. She conducts research & analyses on water related issues and writes editorial content for website. Prior to joining China Water Risk, Ying was the Chief Representative Officer of a European consulting firm in Beijing. She has worked on a wide variety of climate change, environmental and loan/technical assistance projects funded by the National High Technology Research and Development Program of China, the National Basic Research Program of China, European Commission, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and British Embassy in China amongst others. Ying has a Master’s degree in Environmental Engineering from Chinese Academy of Sciences and a Bachelor’s degree also in Environmental Engineering from Beijing Jiaotong University.
Read more from Ying Shen →