Toxic Effects and Environmental Nondisclosure

High-profile talk emphasizing environmental action at the Communist Party’s 18th national congress attracted a lot of attention. News from the November proceedings spurred industry demands for more information and pushed stock prices higher for companies that make environmental products.

(AFP/Getty Images)
Smoke billows from chimneys at a factory in Jilin province, November 29, 2009.

Government officials at the congress pledged to improve environmental assessment practices, strengthen accountability, and raise public awareness of the damage wrought by pollution since the 1970s while China built the world’s second-largest economy.

The promises follow reports that environmental management overall has been deteriorating in recent years, despite minor improvements. Moreover, public protests tied to environmental issues have been on the rise.

To accomplish its environmental goals, the government must insist on transparency. But so far, nondisclosure has been the norm. For example, it’s disturbing to note that results from a national land pollution survey apparently completed in 2010 have yet to see the light of day.

The study, jointly conducted by the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Ministry of Land and Resources, began in 2006 as the first of its kind. Its aim was to identify polluted sites across the country so that measures, including legislative steps, could be taken to tackle various problems.

Not only have none of the findings been made public, but essentially there’s been nothing done toward clean-ups nor helping people affected by toxic soil. Not a single individual or group has been held accountable for damage, and no new environmental protection laws have been introduced.

In addition, key details about a separate, recently introduced State Council plan to mitigate soil contamination have yet to be announced.

A presidential report released at the congress linked environmental hazards to endangering public health. It also called for stronger measures to prevent and control water, soil, and air pollution.

China’s soil contamination problem is among the worst the world has ever seen, according to data released in 2006 by the Ministry of Environmental Protection. The study found toxins affecting some 10 million hectares of the country’s 120 million hectares of arable land, and that another 2.1 million hectares of crops were being irrigated with polluted water. Some 133,000 hectares were being used for waste dumps nationwide.

It’s also been estimated that heavy metals contaminate up to 12 million tons of food—or 20 billion yuan’s worth—every year in China.

Researchers have found high levels of cadmium in the blood, urine, and hair of people in certain farming communities. A 2011 Caixin report about toxic waste in rural China said no one really knows how cadmium damages the human body, although health experts have blamed the heavy metal for poisonings in Japan linked to so-called “itai-itai” disease, which weakens victims’ bones.

Reportedly, much of the government’s documentation is outdated and thus fails to detail the full extent of the nation’s environmental problems. Thorough reports and transparency may be lacking because officials fear telling the truth would upset the “social stability” they so highly prize. But this fear is unreasonable.

Three years ago, a Ministry of Housing study of conditions in 4,000 cities found only 58 percent of the public water supplies met official health standards. But the results were withheld from the public until May, when a Caixin report forced the issue. The publication did not upset social stability but instead spurred communities to action.

Authorities should now follow up by releasing the latest soil contamination survey—as soon as possible—for the sake of the country and its people.

People have a right to know whether their urban surroundings and farms are polluted, and if so to what extent. They need this information to assess the risks they face and work out appropriate countermeasures. Transparency can also reduce public suspicions toward the government and keep protests from happening.

Disclosure is also important because policymakers at all levels need information to properly formulate preventive measures, identify polluters, and impose penalties before environmental degradation gets even worse.

At stake is the government’s credibility. Regulations on government information disclosure that took effect in May 2008 say authorities must release information to the public in a timely manner. Information covered by this rule would include details about polluted land, including its extent and locations, presented in plain language, as Beijing does by regularly releasing data about unhealthy, PM2.5 particulates in the city’s air.

The 18th congress concluded with calls for a systematic approach to environmental management, as well as proposals for holding polluters accountable and compensating pollution victims. Next on the agenda should be mandatory information disclosure.

The government can take the first step by releasing the data it’s already gathered on nationwide soil contamination. As our new leader Xi Jinping told the congress in his first speech as party chairman: “This is a national responsibility—a responsibility for the people.”