Hundreds of Chinese teens have fallen ill at a private school built on a toxic waste dump

Changzhou Foreign Languages School.
Changzhou Foreign Languages School.
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Nearly 500 Chinese teenagers have been diagnosed with illnesses ranging from eczema to bronchitis to leukemia since they started attending a new campus in eastern China last September that was built on a toxic chemical waste dump.

Of the total 2,451 students at the Changzhou Foreign Languages School in Jiangsu Province, 493, or one in five, have been diagnosed with diseases, including a handful with cancers including lymphoma and leukemia, China’s state broadcaster CCTV reported (link in Chinese) on Sunday (Apr. 17) evening. (Cancer rates for children and teens in the US are about 16 per 100,000, by comparison.)

A sick student at Changzhou Foreign Languages School.
A sick student at Changzhou Foreign Languages School.
Image: Screenshot of CCTV

The report has outraged parents and students across the country—the discussion topic “Contaminated School” (link in Chinese, registration required) attracted nearly 30 million views on Sina Weibo a day after the report appeared, and 76,000 comments.

Even though the site was massively contaminated, building of a new campus went ahead, CCTV reports. A 2012 environmental report shows astounding amounts of cancer-causing substances were detected near the campus—levels of toxic chemical chlorobenzene, a solvent, were 78,899 times permitted levels in nearby soil, and 94,799 times levels permitted in groundwater.

The new campus was built on a contaminated site that had housed three factories that produced pesticides including carbofuran, which has been banned in the EU and other regions because of the damage it does to wildlife. One factory, Jiangsu Changlong Chemicals, was owned by the country’s biggest pesticide producer Shenzhen Noposion. Former employees told Chinese media they had buried toxic chemicals near the plants, and discharged untreated waste water into rivers, in order to “save time and money,” China Daily reports.

The school is one of the best-known secondary schools in China’s eastern Jiangsu province, and it charges older students 60,000 RMB (about $9,260) a year for an education that aims to prepare them to go to university overseas. Construction on the new campus started seven months before the environmental report approving it came out in March of 2012, CCTV reported.

Many students have asked to transfer, but so far the vast majority, 2,441 are still studying on the campus, according to a statement on the school’s website (link in Chinese) on Monday (Apr. 18).

A person who answered a phone number posted on the school’s website said the school is “under normal operation” and wouldn’t comment further.

The Ministry of Environmental Production is investigating into the case. In January, the ministry said it found toxic chemicals in the soil on the site after parents complained their children were getting sick. The local government said in late January it has started cleaning up the land—by reburying the contaminated soil.

Local environmental authorities said air and soil quality on the site met with national standards in February. The “nearby environment has no odor,” local environment authorities reported on an official Weibo account (link in Chinese) after an inspection on the campus last month.

Some Chinese citizens are livid. “What Chinese Dream? Shoddy vaccines, water contamination, melamine [in infant formula], gutter oil, and the contaminated school?” one blogger wrote on Weibo under the “Contaminated School” topic, referring to President Xi Jinping’s ideological slogan. “Ordinary people just want to live safe and sound.”