China now has up to 400 “cancer villages,” and the government only just admitted it

Water in this village near Chongqing probably caused 14 out of 500 villagers to die of cancer in just three years.
Water in this village near Chongqing probably caused 14 out of 500 villagers to die of cancer in just three years.
Image: China Photos/Getty Images
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China’s “growth at all costs” approach to development has meant industries can spew waste pretty much wherever they want. Drinking water sources? Sure. Farmland? Fine. That approach has poisoned entire towns, sending cancer rates soaring.

There are now so many that they’ve earned their own moniker: “cancer villages.” Conservative estimates have found more than 100 of them in China. But the number of cancer villages could be as high as 400, though, say recent reports.

At least the government is now acknowledging their existence. This admission came in its newly unveiled plan to curb the release of toxic chemicals—a major move considering these matters pose potential threats to its stability.

China’s water pollution is visibly rampant. Investigative journalist Deng Fei recently launched a top-trending campaign on Sina Weibo inviting users to upload photos of their hometown rivers. Here are some examples:

china polluted river
Some answers to the question “How is the river in your hometown”?
Image: TechInAsia

Of course, trash is the least worrisome problem. In a survey of 40,000 chemical and petrochemical plants, 23% of hazardous plants were within five kilometers (paywall), or three miles, upstream of drinking water sources, reports the South China Morning Post.

It’s already costing China a lot. Speaking with Britain’s The Telegraph, Deng said, “If the issue [of ground water pollution] is not properly solved, not only will it kill people but it will also drag down the entire healthcare system because of the number of cancer patients it causes.” The government now plans to spend $850 billion to clean up its water. Its track record is lousy, though. It spent $112 billion on this from 2005-10, but 43% of the water it monitors is still dangerous to humans.

Of course, China’s scary air has stolen the show of late. As of 2011, Beijing’s lung cancer rate had leapt 60% in the previous 10 years, even as smoking rates stayed stable, the deputy director of the Beijng Health Bureau told China Daily. So how much worse was the air in January and early February, when it was literally off the pollution charts?

China Academy of Sciences is starting to form an answer. It just reported that January’s noxious fug hanging over Beijing and other major cities contained the same chemicals as the “photochemical smog” that killed more than 800 Los Angeles residents in 1940-50.

A similar type of smog enshrouded London for four days in early December of 1952, causing the premature deaths of some 4,000 people (pdf, p. 7). (Most of these were respiratory and cardiovascular disease; the cancer rate isn’t clear.)

The Chinese researchers looking into this winter’s smog epidemic found that 800 million people were affected, spread over 1.4 million square kilometers (540,000 square miles). Hospital admissions in major cities soared during that time. China hasn’t reported any resulting mortality rates yet. But then, it also took decades for UK authorities to assess the December 1952 death toll—and that fog lasted only four days.