China’s big heavy metal problem

By Frank Ching

China released a report on April 17 which disclosed that 16.1 percent of the country’s soil and nearly one-fifth of its arable land was contaminated, largely by heavy metals such as cadmium, nickel and arsenic. This is the price the country is paying for its meteoric rise over the last 35 years, with little thought given to protecting the environment. The report, based on a joint study by the Ministry of Environmental Protection and the Ministry of Land and Resources from April 2005 to December 2013, found that 19.4 percent of farmland was contaminated, ranging from 11.2 percent that was “slightly” contaminated to 1.1 percent that was “heavily” polluted.

China accounts for 20 percent of the world’s population but possesses only 10 percent of its arable land. The contamination of almost one-fifth of its farmland raises serious health issues and also makes it difficult for Beijing to remain basically self-sufficient in the production of food. Environmental pollution has resulted in the proliferation of “cancer villages” in the country, with an 8-year-old girl in Jiangsu province emerging last November as the country’s youngest lung cancer patient. The Environmental Protection Ministry said in 2006 that more than 10 percent of farmland was polluted, and that about 12 million tons of grain was contaminated by heavy metals every year.

Last December, the Ministry of Land and Resources disclosed that about 3.33 million hectares of arable land, an area about the size of Belgium, was too contaminated to farm. The latest report, that 19.4 percent of farmland is contaminated, suggests that the situation has greatly worsened since the 2006 report, with twice the amount of arable land now being contaminated. Pan Genxing, an expert at Nanjing Agricultural University, citing a nationwide survey of rice supplies, has reportedly said that 10 percent of the country’s annual rice output contains excessive levels of cadmium. That is to say, about 20 million tons of the rice produced each year is contaminated. Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong province, adjacent to Hong Kong, released data last year showing that inspectors of the city’s Food and Drug Administration found that 44 percent of the rice tested showed high cadmium content.