Poison Eaters of Gansu Province

Barely any rainfall on a bone-dry landscape has always made crop farming in the province of Gansu a rough gamble between the sky and local irrigation policies. But now, farmers reap only sorrow from fields that experts say are severely contaminated with cadmium and other heavy metals.

A survey conducted between 2006 and 2010 by the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) and the Ministry of Land and Resources is believed by many soil pollution experts to be the most comprehensive report on China’s land pollution to date. But the central government has refused to release the results of the survey, on grounds that the information is an issue of national security. In 2006, the MEP stated roughly 10 million hectares of farmland had been contaminated by heavy metals, including 2.2 million hectares of land affected through water pollution.

One farmer named Wu Zonglu said land experts that visited from Beijing declared the soil in his village of Miqin to be hazardous. He said they told him that eating produce farmed from the soil was tantamount to suicide.

Heavy metals are absorbed in the stomach and stored in the bones. The cadmium moves slowly—so slowly that when Wu began to feel bone pains two decades ago, no one thought it would eventually take over his thigh bones and then his lower back. His wife has suffered more—she can hardly hold her hands outstretched.

Caixin found that people in dozens of villages along the Dongdagou, the biggest man-made canal for sewage discharge in Baiyin city, have complained of similar health problems for decades. The canal is used as a dumping ground for local factories and streams across 200 hectares of land. When villagers visit the hospital, they are diagnosed with osteoporosis or hyperostosis. But they’ve never received an official medical explanation as to why so many people suffer from the same set of ailments.

The descriptions of the bone pain cases echo one of the most prominent cases of mass cadmium poisoning, which occurred in 1950s Japan. An illness called the “itai-itai,” or the “ouch-ouch” disease in Japanese, in Toyama Prefecture, was eventually traced to the consumption of rice containing excessive levels of cadmium. Crops irrigated with polluted water led to contaminated food.

Some government researchers openly deny the existence of “itai-itai” in China. Shang Qi, a research fellow at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, has been following health problems caused by land pollution for more than twenty years. He says that while soil contamination is a problem, there are no studies that have confirmed large-scale cadmium poisoning.

In many of China’s arid regions, wastewater is used for irrigation. According to a national survey on irrigation water quality conducted in the 1980s, 86 percent of irrigation water was substandard. The study also found that 65 percent of wastewater used for irrigation contained excessive levels of heavy metals, including mercury and cadmium. Soil experts say that the use of wastewater for irrigation is still a widespread practice.

Meanwhile, the bone pains have hit almost everyone in Minqin village and all of the villagers share the same description of the disease. The pain can come at any time of the year. Villagers describe a coldness that comes to the joints, which then spreads to the rest of the body.

Soil Soaked in Toxins

Factories have used Dongdagou, also known as the Shahe River, as a dumping ground for industrial waste since the 1950s. Many of the factories are owned by the Baiyin Nonferrous Metal Group Co., Ltd.

A 1994 report by the local government showed that 68 percent of the wastewater used to irrigate the farmland contained industrial waste. In 2000, a report showed that this increased to 74 percent. The local government says it has been working to address contaminated irrigation since the end of the 1990s. A project which allows some farmers access to the waters of the Yellow River comes at a high cost for some at 300 yuan per year.

While alternative sources of water may be an option for some, the heavy metal pollution in the soil has yet to be addressed. Just outside Baiyin city, the village of Haojiacun has been polluted so severely that the land has not yielded any crops for twenty years. Not even wild grass grows on the huge swaths of land as a result of heavy metal contamination.

Similar scenes could also be seen in the nearby Shangpogang and Yaqushui villages. Local residents confirmed with Caixin that at least more than 77 hectares of land were abandoned by farmers in the area.

Environmental protection researchers from various institutions, including Lanzhou University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), have been scrutinizing the concentration of heavy metal chemicals in the soil and the seeds of the crops grown out of the land over the past two decades.

A 2006 study of the soil in the villages of Minqin and Shangpogang by research fellow Wang Guoli at the Gansu Agricultural University shows that the cadmium content in the soil was 34.84 milligrams and 30 milligrams per kilogram, respectively. The average reading in the mining area of Toyama Prefecture, Japan, was only 2.27 milligrams/kilogram during the 1950s.

Wang’s findings were reinforced by a 2007 report conducted by researcher Lei Siwei at the Environmental Resources Laboratory of the Northwest Research Institute of Mining and Metallurgy. The report said wheat grain in the Dongdagou area had an average cadmium contamination of 7.4 milligrams per kilogram. Traces of copper, arsenic, lead, and mercury were also found in the kernels.

Early Signs of Trouble

Not a single government authority has ever made the health risks of soil contamination public or linked the pollution of the Dongdagou area to the unusual pains that so many villagers have suffered. This is despite the fact that soil contamination was documented—and went unaddressed as early as the 1980s.

A study by the Gansu provincial environmental protection supervision station together with the Baiyin Corporation Labor and Health Research Institute in 1983 found that farmers at the age of twenty and above working along Dongdagou had accumulated high levels of cadmium in their bodies. Urine tests of the farmers found on average 3.28 -3.75 milligrams of cadmium per liter. Excessive contamination is anything that registers above 2 milligrams of cadmium per liter.

Decades later, a graduate student at Northwest Normal University returned to the study. Wen Fei, now an official at the Gansu Provincial Environmental Science Institute, found that over 50 percent of the population in Baiyin city, on the upper reaches of the Yellow River, suffered from chronic heavy metal poisoning. Wei declined to discuss the results of his study, stating that the conclusions of his research made eight years ago required follow-up investigations.

Nan Huaizhong, a researcher at CAS, has followed soil pollution issues in Baiyin since the 1990s and drafted a number of environmental protection plans for the local government. He told Caixin that he once proposed a plan to study the public health effects of soil pollution but his application request was ignored.

At the same time, many local residents told Caixin that in the past few years, the government disease control and prevention agency has collected blood and hair samples from residents without telling the individuals what the samples were being tested for.

Wu, in Minqin village, said a huge issue remains public awareness. “The first time that I had ever heard of heavy metal contamination was when I worked for the government’s pilot program to address soil issues. That’s when I was told I shouldn’t eat the corn and the wheat grown from my own land. But we’ve been fed on this food for so many years. What else is there for us?” said Wu.