A new government-approved “cancer atlas” shows the correlation between water pollution and high cancer rates in the Huai River Basin
On June 28, SinoMaps Press published the digital edition of its Atlas of the Water Environment and Digestive Cancer Mortality in the Huai River Basin, a collection of 108 maps showing the severity of water pollution in the Huai River and its tributaries, and rates of digestive cancer deaths in the region. Environmentalists have hailed the publication as the first official acknowledgement of the causal relationship between water pollution and the emergence of “cancer villages” in the Huai River Basin.
Since the late 1990s, along with rapid social and economic development in the area, industrial pollution, particularly water pollution, has led to a sharp increase in the numbers of “cancer villages,” settlements with abnormally high incidences of cancer deaths.
The Huai River runs north-south between the Yellow and Yangtze rivers, flowing from central China’s Henan Province eastward through Hubei, Anhui and Jiangsu provinces before emptying into the Yellow Sea. Thanks to its abundant water resources, flat landscape and mild weather, the basin is ideal for human habitation and has historically been one of China’s major agricultural production bases, producing nearly one-fourth of China’s marketed grain, cotton and oil seeds while occupying only one-eighth of the country’s farmland. The river basin encompasses over 30 cities and some 180 counties, and its population of more than 165 million exceeds all other Chinese river basins in terms of population density.
One of the fastest growing regional economies in China, the Huai River Basin has been haunted by cancer villages over the past few decades. In the late 1990s, the drive to address the devastating water pollution in the basin, headed up by grassroots environmental NGOs like the Guardians of the Huai River, began to catch the attention of the media, and in turn the central government.
Reading the Signs
Shocking images and video footage showing the river’s foamy surface and black sewage-like water were constantly released by various media outlets, including State broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV). In October 2004, then Vice-premier Zeng Peiyan convened a meeting aimed at curbing this severe water pollution, attended by all the government leaders of the 35 cities in the four provinces along the Huai River.
In 2005, the Ministry of Health (MOH) tasked the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) with conducting research on the correlation between water pollution and the region’s high cancer rates.
According to Yang Gonghuan, former deputy director of CDC, in the first phase of the project, the research team chose their study and control areas from three major pollution-infected counties, namely, Shenqiu in Henan, Yongqiao in Anhui and Xuyi in Jiangsu. Due to the lack of cancer-related mortality records over the past 30 years, a retrospective survey of causes of death was carried out. “Since cancer is a complex disease and it is difficult to prove a definite causal relationship with water pollution, we carried out extensive comparative research and analysis, collecting detailed data on death tolls, diseases, and cancer-risk factors,” Yang told NewsChina late July. “An epidemiological study was designed in 2005 to compare the numbers of deaths and the causes of death between the study areas haunted by water pollution and a sample of control areas,” Yang added.
The results of the research indicated that both mortality and prevalence of digestive cancers were much higher in the study areas than in the control areas. For example, the annual average mortality rates due to cancer in the study areas of Shenqiu County and Yongqiao District were 277.8 and 223.6 per 100,000 persons respectively, three to four times higher than the recorded rate in control areas. “The research results also gained approval from the MOH and were finally presented to the State Council in 2006,” said Yang Gonghuan, adding that the report on the one-year project was not made public at the time.
Upon receiving the report, the central government ordered the Ministry of Environmental Protection to conduct environmental rehabilitation projects and the MOH to launch cancer prevention programs in the region.
Late 2006, the Ministry of Science and Technology began a project named “Research on Evaluation of the Association between Water Pollution and Cancer along the Huai River,” to be implemented by the CDC. Yang Gonghuan led a team of over 70 experts from various fields including epidemiology, environmental science and oncology to conduct further research. They spent another five years in 14 counties in the Huai River Basin.
A comparison of causes of death between the periods of 1973-1975 and 2004-2005 in the Huai River Basin showed that in areas where long-term water pollution was the most severe, mortality due to digestive cancers, particularly liver and gastric cancer, had risen rapidly – several times faster than the national average.
Yang’s team issued thorough “verbal autopsy” questionnaires to determine likely causes of death where no medical records existed. The results of the five-year study appeared in the international journal Population Health Metrics in late 2011.
The second phase of the project, according to Yang, involved the drawing and compiling of the cancer maps. “Based on results of previous studies on the correlation between cancer and water pollution, we intended to define the scope of both water pollution and cancer, so as to guide government policy to invest in the right places, in terms of pollution management and finding alternative drinking water resources,” said Yang.
Historically, the Huai River has suffered from multiple sources of pollution, making it virtually impossible to pinpoint exactly which kind of pollution is responsible for the high cancer rates among locals. Experts argue that preventive measures need to be taken, particularly in the severely polluted areas identified in the atlas.
Since the result of the first phase of the research and data collection was submitted to the central government in 2006, local governments in this vast area have launched various counter-pollution and medical treatment measures.
Many small polluting factories have been shut down, hundreds of sewage treatment plants established and water filters installed in many villages. Local governments have also dug deeper wells to obtain uncontaminated drinking water. In Shengqiu County alone, a total of 721 factories engaged in paper production, leather manufacturing, chemicals and textiles have been closed down.
Besides the government-sponsored investigation, non-governmental environmentalists such as Huo Daishan, founder of the Guardians of the Huai River, have also played a big part in aiding the mapping efforts and investigating and supervising the sources of pollution.
“Official research is based on scientific evidence and data analysis, but it needs support from civil groups, particularly environmental NGOs, whose efforts can promote the participation of the masses,” Yang Gonghuan said. She admitted that the completion of the eight-year Huai River Basin project is the result of cooperation between the government and NGOs. “The task of detecting factories’ secret sewage outlets can only be fulfilled by local farmers organized by NGOs, not by government personnel,” Yang explained.
During the past decade, despite the media and environmental NGOs’ frequent efforts to bring cancer villages to the attention of the government and the general public, it was not until early this year, one decade after the problem was revealed, that the central government officially acknowledged the villages’ existence. The Ministry of Environmental Protection first used the term “cancer village” in February this year, referencing the link between China’s use and production of toxic chemicals, the contamination of drinking water, and high cancer mortality rates.
Out of the Mainstream
Some in China have expressed hope that the newly published atlas could be used as evidence in future environmental public interest lawsuits (see: “The Voice of the Polluted,” NewsChina, September 2013, Vol. 062) aimed at winning compensation for victims of pollution.
However, in Yang Gonghuan’s opinion, this notion is unrealistic. “The atlas only shows the scope of pollution and its correlation with cancer incidence – it contains no information about who the polluters are, or proof that polluted water is solely to blame for a specific cancer case,” she said.
Although pollution in the Huai River Basin was largely brought under control after 2005, relatively serious water pollution remains in some parts of the tributaries of the Huai River. Local refuse and excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides continue to pose a significant threat to the fragile water system. Many still face a higher risk of developing cancer.
Zhuang Dafang, co-author of the atlas and a researcher from the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, said that while water quality in the main stream areas of the Huai River had visibly improved, the situation in tributary areas was far from satisfactory.
Today, on the Shaying River, the largest branch of the Huai River and once the most polluted waterway in the basin, people can be seen fishing by the riverside. According to a local farmer who fished in the Shaying River interviewed in a recent CCTV report, marine life in the river has increased dramatically over the past five years: “There has been no bad water flowing down from the upper stream in the past five years, and the fish are coming back,” he said. However, at the same time, tributaries of the Shaying River remain polluted.
“The dams on the tributaries block the polluted water’s route into the trunk stream, so people see clear water in the Huai River now. But the pollution is now concentrated in its various tributaries, and this is one of the key issues to be tackled in future pollution control work,” said Zhuang Dafang to CCTV.
Yang Gonghuan remains pessimistic about the water pollution situation in the region. “Although water quality has improved slightly in recent years, it will still take at least 10 years for cancer mortality to drop to a significantly lower level,” Yang said.
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