There has been some acknowledgment of the problem by top officials. In January last year, the State Council, China’s Cabinet, announced that it would set up systems to comprehensively monitor soil pollution by 2015 and promote pilot projects for treatment.
Scholars say soil pollution is especially acute in Hunan Province, China’s rice bowl. In 2012, Hunan produced 17 million tonnes of rice, 16 percent of the national total, according to one market research company.
The province is also one of China’s top producers of nonferrous metals. As a result, it is the leading polluter of cadmium, chromium, lead and nonmetal arsenic, according to data collected in 2011 by the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, a research group based in Beijing.
That year, the province was responsible for 41 percent of the nation’s cadmium pollution when measured by its presence in industrial wastewater. The number has not dropped below 30 percent since 2004, when the data were first collected by the group. The wastewater is discharged in rivers, where it flows into irrigation channels.
“There’s this pressure from the central government on Hunan to maintain a high level of yield for rice production,” Ma said. “On the other hand, rice production never gives you the same kind of GDP growth that industrial development gives you.”
Hunan’s abundance of raw metals has led to a push by provincial Chinese Communist Party leaders to develop mining and smelting there further, leaving officials caught in what Ma calls a clash of two imperatives: “They have to feed the country with their rice, but they want to grow their economy.”
Among the heavy metals seeping into Hunan’s crops, the worst may be cadmium, which at high levels has been linked to organ failure, weakening of bones and cancer, scientists said.
“Cadmium has a tendency to accumulate in the kidney and liver,” Guangdong Institute of Eco-environment and Soil Sciences academic Chen Nengchang (陳能場) said. “When the accumulation reaches a certain point, it will pose a serious health risk for the organs.”
Cadmium that accumulates in rice plants gets not only into the rice on China’s tables, but also into animals’ meat, since the husks are fed to farm animals. There is no public data, though, that show the level of cadmium pollution in food.
HIGH CANCER RATES
Increasingly, Chinese news organizations are reporting on clusters of villages that have high rates of cancer, raising questions about the potential link between cancer and various forms of pollution. Some scientists are now conducting studies.
In July, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Pollution published some findings from a study that drew a direct connection between pollution of the Huai River, which crosses several provinces in central China, and high rates of cancer among people living by the river. In Hunan, and particularly in the Chenjiawan area administered by Hengyang City, which includes Ge’s village, stories of cancer are common.
One woman in the village of Liujiacun said her husband had died in his late 50s of liver cancer.
“He didn’t do heavy labor, didn’t smoke and he would drink only a little bit,” said the widow, who gave only her surname, Li.