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PORTSIDE  May 2011, Week 5

PORTSIDE May 2011, Week 5

Subject:

Cancer Now Leading Cause of Death in China

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Date:

Mon, 30 May 2011 01:27:19 -0400

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Cancer Now Leading Cause of Death in China
Janet Larsen
Earth Policy Institute
May 25, 2011
http://www.earth-policy.org/plan_b_updates/2011/update96

Cancer is now the leading cause of death in China.
Chinese Ministry of Health data implicate cancer in
close to a quarter of all deaths countrywide. As is
common with many countries as they industrialize, the
usual plagues of poverty-infectious diseases and high
infant mortality-have given way to diseases more often
associated with affluence, such as heart disease,
stroke, and cancer.

While this might be expected in China's richer cities,
where bicycles are fast being traded in for cars and
meat consumption is climbing, it also holds true in
rural areas. In fact, reports from the countryside
reveal a dangerous epidemic of "cancer villages" linked
to pollution from some of the very industries propelling
China's explosive economy. By pursuing economic growth
above all else, China is sacrificing the health of its
people, ultimately risking future prosperity.

Lung cancer is the most common cancer in China. Deaths
from this typically fatal disease have shot up nearly
fivefold since the 1970s. In China's rapidly growing
cities, like Shanghai and Beijing, where particulates in
the air are often four times higher than in New York
City, nearly 30 percent of cancer deaths are from lung
cancer. (See data.)

Dirty air is associated with not only a number of
cancers, but also heart disease, stroke, and respiratory
disease, which together account for over 80 percent of
deaths countrywide. According to the Chinese Centre for
Disease Control and Prevention, the burning of coal is
responsible for 70 percent of the emissions of soot that
clouds out the sun in so much of China; 85 percent of
sulfur dioxide, which causes acid rain and smog; and 67
percent of nitrogen oxide, a precursor to harmful ground
level ozone. Coal burning is also a major emitter of
carcinogens and mercury, a potent neurotoxin. Coal ash,
which contains radioactive material and heavy metals,
including chromium, arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury,
is China's number one source of solid industrial waste.
The toxic ash that is not otherwise used in
infrastructure or manufacturing is stored in
impoundments, where it can be caught by air currents or
leach contaminants into the groundwater.

Coal pollution combined with emissions from China's
burgeoning industries and the exhaust of a fast-growing
national vehicle fleet are plenty enough to impair
breathing and jeopardize health. But that does not stop
over half the men in China from smoking tobacco. Smoking
is far less common among women; less than 3 percent
light up. Still, about 1 in 10 of the estimated 1
million Chinese who die from smoking-related diseases
each year are exposed to carcinogenic second hand smoke
but do not smoke themselves.

In rural areas, liver, lung, and stomach cancers each
accounts for close to 20 percent of cancer mortality.
Liver cancer is more than three times as likely to kill
a Chinese farmer as the average global citizen; for
stomach cancer, rural Chinese have double the world
death rate. These cancers are linked to water polluted
by chemicals and sewage, along with other environmental
contaminants.

As factories, plants, and mines discharge pollutants,
rivers and lakes take on sickly hues. Even underground
water sources become contaminated. Government data
indicate that half of China's rivers and more than three
out of every four lakes and reservoirs are too polluted
for safe drinking, even after treatment. Nevertheless,
they remain a primary source of water for many people.

More than 450 "cancer villages" have emerged across
China in recent years, according to an analysis by
geographer Lee Liu published in Environment magazine in
2010. These communities-where an unusually high number
of residents are struck by the same types of cancer-tend
to cluster in poorer areas along polluted waterways or
downstream from industrial parks. Whereas much of
China's early industrial development took place along
the coast, factories more recently have been locating
where labor is cheaper and environmental oversight is
less strict, pushing the so-called "cancer belt" inland.

For villages once largely self-sufficient, the poisoning
of their water and soil is devastating. The young and
able-bodied often leave to seek income elsewhere. Those
too old, too poor, or too sick to leave remain,
struggling to work the poisoned land.

Liu notes that in some extreme cases, like in
Huangmengying Village in Henan Province, "the death rate
is higher than the birth rate and is rising rapidly,"
and not because of population aging. In this particular
village, which gets blackened water from a tributary of
the notoriously polluted Huai River, some 80 percent of
the village's young people are chronically ill. Even
one-year-olds are receiving cancer diagnoses. About half
of all the village deaths between 1994 and 2004 were
caused by liver, rectum, and stomach cancers. More
recent data is not readily available because the
government official who initially made the numbers
public was accused of "leaking state secrets," was fired
from his job as the village's Party secretary, and now
is reluctant to speak out, according to reporting for
the Global Times.

Because of the lag time before diagnosis or death, plus
the lack of health care in many of the poorest, most
polluted areas, the magnitude of China's cancer epidemic
could be far greater than imagined. And not all the
environmental burden is borne locally. The contamination
spans geography-as toxins in products and crops are
spread through markets and trade or are literally
carried across oceans by global air currents-as well as
generations.

China's youth, and therefore the country's future, are
at risk. Birth defect rates have been climbing rapidly
in recent years in the major cities and countrywide.
Chinese family planning officials link this "alarming
rise" to environmental contamination. The coal mining
and processing areas of Shanxi Province are home to the
world's highest birth defect rate: over 8.4 percent. Of
the 1 million or so affected babies born each year in
China, some 20 to 30 percent may be treated, but 40
percent will have permanent disabilities. The rest die
shortly after birth.

Over the last several years, thousands of children
living near lead mines, smelters, and battery plants
have been poisoned. Deadly at excessive levels, lead in
the blood is considered unsafe in any amount. Exposure
can impair cognitive and nervous system development,
stunt growth, hamper learning, and depress IQ.
Heartbreaking news stories tell of the lost potential of
children who lose their chance to go on to school or
fail to thrive more generally due to their exposure to
high environmental levels of lead.

For a country of one child families, it is no wonder to
see more frequent "mass incidents" (the government's
term for protests) sparked by the health fallout from
pollution. In some cases, operations of the offending
industries have been closed following protest; in
others, the government has relocated entire communities
to allow the polluters to continue operations. Yet in
many situations, the contamination continues unabated.

It is easy to point a finger at unscrupulous industries
and government officials willing to look the other way,
but some responsibility for China's unhealthy
environment originates outside the country's borders.
Waste is frequently loaded up in container ships
overseas and delivered directly to China. More
insidiously, Western consumers lapping up artificially
cheap "made in China" components and products have
outsourced pollution to this factory for the world.

Earlier this year near the release of China's latest 5-
year plan, the New York Times quoted Chinese Prime
Minister Wen Jiabao's proclamation that "We must not any
longer sacrifice the environment for the sake of rapid
growth and reckless roll-outs." Yet while official
rhetoric recognizes the importance of preserving the
environment and the health of its people, the Chinese
government still has a long way to go in bolstering
transparency and enforcement of even the existing
environmental regulations, not to mention strengthening
protection. If it does not do so, the country's toxic
burden threatens to stall or even reverse the dramatic
health gains of the last 60 years, which raised average
life expectancy from 45 to 74 years and slashed infant
mortality from 122 deaths per 1,000 births down to 20.
Economic gains could be lost as productivity wanes and
massive health bills come due. Ultimately, a sick
country can prosper only so long.

___________________________________________

Portside aims to provide material of interest to people
on the left that will help them to interpret the world
and to change it.

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