Sip of Death Plagues River Villages

Polluted Water in Three Provinces Linked to High Death Rates

Cancer is claiming fewer lives these days, and Dr. Wang Shiren says he’s been caring for a steadily declining number of patients suffering from gastrointestinal disorders.

Yet a decades-long health calamity continues to grip Huangmengying, a Henan province community of about 2,500 straddling the Huai River, where Dr. Wang practices and researchers have been monitoring conditions for at least eight years.

Despite tangible evidence of progress in cleaning up the polluted water blamed for countless deaths and disease, Huangmengying’s name is still on a grim list of so-called “cancer villages” in the river basin region.

That list is familiar to Yang Gonghuan, a Beijing-based professor of public health at the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences who used to serve as a deputy director at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Yang and her team have spent years monitoring the polluted river and severe cancer rates among local people.

The initial report from the government-funded research, which has already spanned some eight years, was published in June with findings that, for the first time, officially linked high rates of cancer to the river water. Polluted water, the study said, may be directly blamed for several especially prevalent cancers of the gastrointestinal system in the area, including those that attack the esophagus, colon, and rectum. Their research is continuing.

“From the perspective of environmental medicine, polluted drinking water may be a direct cause of gastrointestinal cancers,” said Yang.

And according to local doctors, congenital disease is common among the children born to parents who live in the cancer villages. High levels of babies born blind, deaf, mute, or with heart disease have been reported.



China’s State-Run Media Shares Powerful Map of “Cancer Villages” Creeping Inland

It appears that Chinese environmental activism is going further mainstream. The Sina micro-blogging account of Global Times, a well-known Communist Party mouthpiece, has just shared news about the horrific proliferation of “cancer villages” in China...

Yang’s study mapped forty counties in the river basin where serious water pollution problems were found between 1997 and 2009. The counties are scattered across three provinces—Henan, Anhui, and Shandong.

Shenqiu county, which includes Huangmengying, is identified as one of the most polluted areas. Huangmengying is about fifteen kilometers from the county’s center to the south of the Shaying River, the Huai’s largest tributary.

Shenqiu authorities took action in 2005 by connecting village water supplies to forty-seven newly dug wells. Twenty villages with the highest cancer rates were among those benefiting.

The decision to dig deep-water wells complemented a March 2005 decision by the State Council, China’s cabinet, to promote projects that can guarantee safe drinking water in rural areas nationwide.

By 2006, a number of cancer-plagued villages in Anhui and Henan were seeing improvements thanks to the government initiative. For instance, the Henan government agreed to spend 240 million yuan to improve public water systems in 800 villages along the Huai and Hai rivers.

Better water also started flowing into drinking water taps in Huangmengying, which helped to reduce Dr. Wang’s patient load.

But many brutal years preceded the improvements, and the death toll could be mounting for years to come.

Huangmengying villagers said the first local victim was diagnosed with cancer in 1986. Afterward, even though no one knew why, the village’s cancer rate rose rapidly.

Clear, then Dark

In 1990, twelve people in Huangmengying died of cancer. And in 2001, Zhang Guizhi became the eighty-third villager to succumb: cancer of the esophagus killed her before she turned fifty.

Huo Daishan, an environmental activist and former journalist who has closely followed the tragic story of the cancer villages, remembers meeting Zhang while she lay in bed a few days before dying. He offered her a drink of water and, ironically, she asked whether the water could cure her disease.

Huo was born in Shenqiu County sixty years ago and remembers the Shaying used to run beautifully clear. Over the years, though, the river gradually turned cloudy, then dark. People in the region started getting sick. Huo’s mother died in 1974 from colorectal cancer.

Map of China’s Cancer Villages
compiled by
Global Times:

View 中国癌症村地图 China Cancer Villages Map in a larger map
The central government’s Ministry of Health said cancer rates were below average between 1973 and 1975 in the Huai River basin, including Shenqiu and nearby counties, when the river was clean.

Huo worked as a journalist and in the 1990s started conducting independent research on the cancer outbreak along the Huai and its tributaries. He eventually quit his job to give all his energy to study what he believed was a direct correlation between toxins in the water and cancer deaths.

Huo’s visit to Huangmengying as a reporter for the Zhoukou Daily newspaper in 1999 put the village in a public spotlight. He reported that almost every family was caring for at least one cancer patient.

Huo later determined that 116 people had died of cancer in the village between 1990 and 2005. Wang told Caixin that nearly 60 percent of all deaths in the village before 2004 were cancer-related.

Villagers long suspected a connection between cancer and water pollution. Indeed, locals were drilling wells as early as the 1980s—long before the State Council took notice—so that they didn’t have to drink from the dirty river.

Other villages had the same idea. The Xinhua News Agency said about 1.32 million wells had been drilled in the Huai River basin by the year 2000, providing annually about 12 billion cubic meters of water.

The suspicions were confirmed by Yang’s study, which found Huangmengying and other villages within 2.5 kilometers of the Huai and its tributaries have been hard hit by high rates of cancer.

The village’s Communist Party Secretary, fifty-nine-year-old Wang Linsheng, told Caixin that in the past local ponds were clear and full of fish. That changed around 1986, though, when the fish started dying. No one swam in the ponds anymore. By 1990, Wang said, the pollution problem had spread to the river.

Yang’s team found local residents in villages with high cancer rates commonly drank groundwater from shallow aquifers. “Surface water and shallow groundwater are actually connected,” she said. “The pollution thus enters people’s bodies.”

Quantifying the Tragedy

Companies that have been blamed for dumping waste into the rivers include those in the food processing, paper-making, and leather-making industries. A dam built in 1959 on the Shaliu River in Shenqiu served to slow the river’s flow and allow pollution to concentrate in the river water.

The cancer death rate in Shenqiu rose to 204 per 100,000 people in 2006 from 180 just two years earlier, far above the national rate, Yang’s research found. Several other counties saw similar increases in cancer death rates during those years, according to the study.

Yang said the State Council, Ministry of Health, and what was then called the State Environmental Protection Administration noted her preliminary findings back in 2004 and sought “to figure out how severe the pollution was in the Huai River, and the correlation with the high cancer rate. I was assigned to lead the project.”

In summer 2005, Yang led a team with seventy health and environment experts to Shenqiu to check the Huai basin’s cancer rates and see whether the outbreak was related to water pollution. The lack of clear data presented serious challenges, compounded by the fact that many of the area’s rural residents were unregistered with health authorities and had never been to a hospital.   

“Village doctors had some statistics on the cancer death toll,” she said. “But such figures cannot be easily applied to scientific studies.”

The challenges were overcome, and now Yang’s study is likely to affect future policy decisions affecting the Huai.

Yang chose Shenqiu, the Yongqiao district in the city of Suzhou, Anhui province, and Xuyi county in Jiangsu province—each with about 50,000 residents—for sampling. Three counties far from the Huai and its tributaries were picked as control samples.

A survey in various communities organized by local offices of the disease control and prevention center collected death and disease information from residents in the selected areas between 2003 and 2005. The six-month survey project showed that hepatic, gastric, and esophageal cancers had killed more people in Shenqiu and Yongqiao than in the control areas.

Data from Shenqiu showed people with similar living habits and standards were five times more likely to come down with gastrointestinal cancer than people in the control areas.

Another hot spot is the village of Haozhuang, where some of the 1,800 residents told Caixin that the Kui River, which passes by their rice plantations, turned dark in the 1990s. The river is now too toxic for people or crops.

Village official Gao Yongli said the local cancer rate started rising in 1990. Today, more than ten people die from cancer in Haozhuang every year.

Haozhuang Party Secretary Zhang Chuanan told Caixin more than 200 villagers have died from cancer since 1990. Most succumbed to cancers of the gastrointestinal system common in the region. Moreover, renal system problems such as kidney stones are common: at last count, nearly sixty people were suffering from lithiasis.

Another cancerous region is the Qiaocheng district in the city of Bozhou, Anhui province. Yang’s team found this area to be highly polluted, along with neighboring Fugou county and Mengcheng county.

A newspaper report said the Wo River that flows through Bozhou was severely polluted as of 2005, threatening the drinking water for 36 percent of all rural residents in the area. The rising cancer rates frightened many in Bozhou, prompting some to move away.

In the villages of Daying, a resident told Caixin six or seven people were dying from cancer every year in the 1990s. Things got better after 2000, yet some thirty-five people died from cancer between 2001 and this year.

Daying people often contract cardiovascular or cerebrovascular diseases, or lithiasis. The village also has a number of children who were born with deformities.

Huo has tried to help people in areas with the worst pollution by, for example, raising money since 2004 to buy water purifiers for villages. He’s also encouraged media outlets to publicize the problem.

In 2004, at Huo’s invitation, state-run CCTV television reporters conducted a week-long investigation into Huangmengying’s water supply. Water samples were tested, and most samples were found to contain elevated levels of nitrate nitrogen and manganese which health experts say may cause cancer or brain damage.

Huo’s efforts called public attention to the cancer villages. But some local government officials did not appreciate the attention, since news reports threatened community reputations and business prospects. Some of Huo’s activities were closely watched by government officials, and village officials have been sacked after making public comments about local health problems.

A turning point for the pollution problem came in 2007, when the environment ministry stepped in to limit new industrial projects on several sections of the Huai. That same year, Yang’s team received government funding support to continue their research, which was cited as a major scientific project of national importance for the period of the Eleventh Five Year Plan.

Also in 2007, Huo won a national award for working to prevent pollution. Today, he heads a non-governmental organization called the Huai River Eco-Environmental Science Research Center, which builds water purification facilities for polluted villages.

Other government agencies have been working to tackle Huai River pollution, too. Zhuang Dafang, an expert in environment at the Institute of Geographical Sciences and Natural Resources, Chinese Academy of Sciences, said the river’s quality has improved since 2005 but industrial pollution is still a problem in several tributaries.

Yang’s researchers have expanded their study to 5,810 villages in fourteen counties, with about 12.6 million people combined, or 8 percent of the Huai basin's total population. They have so far found eight counties with high cancer rates. But more work is needed.

“Based on our research, scholars in the future should use an analysis of specific pollutants and other scientific methods to prove the direct causality between water pollution and gastrointestinal cancer,” Yang said. “This should be the direction for future work.”

A lingering question is whether more cancer villages have yet to be found. Some thirty counties along the polluted Huai have not been studied.

Yang said based on existing studies “there is a great possibility that there are high cancer rates in those counties.” And since pollution can affect human health far into the future, she said that “it’s foreseeable that cancer outbreaks could remain a challenging issue for areas suffering from water pollution over the next ten years.”