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Heavy metal

11-02-2011 14:17 BJT

For many people, heavy metal pollution was once an unfamiliar term. However, in recent years, a series of heavy metal pollution cases across the country have triggered wide concern.

An elderly man suffering from cadmium poisoning is treated in a hospital in Liuyang, Hunan Province. Many villagers in the area became ill or died due to heavy metal pollution in 2009. Photo: CFP
 In March, more than 160 residents, including 53 children living near a battery factory in Taizhou, Zhejiang Province, were diagnosed with excessive lead in their blood.

Zhou Shengxian, head of the Ministry of Environmental Protection, said from January to August, China had a total of 11 cases related to heavy metal pollution, of which nine involved lead poisoning.

"Heavy metal pollution is still a prominent issue, seriously threatening public health," Zhou said in a report to the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, China's top legislature, on October 25.

According to the Ministry of Environmental Protection, heavy metals have become the country's main pollutant, with more than 30 cases of heavy metal pollution reported since 2009.

Diverse sources

Toxic heavy metals, such as mercury, cadmium and lead, are a growing threat to humanity and the environment, which can cause a range of ailments, from affecting the central nervous system, the kidneys or liver, to skin, bones, and teeth. Unlike organic pollutants, heavy metals do not decay and thus pose a different kind of challenge for medication.

Heavy metal pollution stems from hundreds of different sources, but it mostly comes from the purification of metals during the manufacturing process.

In the ministry's report, 72 percent of 44,600 chemical companies are located near a riverside and 12.2 percent are situated less than one kilometer from environmentally sensitive areas, including main drinking water sources and ecologically important areas.

In 2010, 960 of 10,896 companies emitting heavy metals were found to be harmful to the environment and ordered to reduce emissions, according to the ministry's statistics.

Ma Tianjie, a Greenpeace program manager, told the Global Times that besides the polluting manufacturing, the waste dumped by chemical factories and mines is among the major causes of metal poisoning in the country.

Zhou Shengxian disclosed that due to rapid development China has seen a steady increase in the amount of waste, such as residue from electronics and industry sources. As of today, there has been 19.28 million tons of chromium residue, a hazardous waste material generated during production, which has been released into the environment.

"The residue has gradually penetrated into underground water sources and farmland," Ma added.

Soil contamination

In February, research conducted by the Nanjing Agricultural University revealed that about 10 percent of the rice sold in the markets of several regions was contaminated with cadmium, which now places soil contamination under the spotlight.

About 100,000 square kilometers of farmland, accounting for 8.3 percent of the country's total have been polluted by heavy metals, said Zhou Shengxian, adding the pollution has wreaked havoc in areas such as the Yangtze River Delta, Pearl River Delta, and also in Beijing, Tianjin, and Hebei Province.

It is the first time the ministry has released details of the areas of polluted farmland since the official investigation on soil contamination. The figure is much less than an earlier estimate made by insiders who claimed it to be at 20 percent, according to Beijing-based news website

Wang Zuwei, a professor with the College of Urban and Environment Science at Tianjin Normal University, told the Global Times that cadmium, chromium and arsenic are the major pollutants, with areas of farmland affected.

The pollution leads to a reduction in grain production. According to the Ministry of Land and Resources, heavy metal pollution results in a loss of 10 million tons of grain annually, causing direct economic losses of 20 billion yuan ($3.14 billion) every year.

Besides the loss of grain, it also affects food safety.

According to a recent agricultural environment report, of 62 soil samples from vegetable fields in Dongwan, Guangdong, 13 suffered from light or moderate pollution and contained excessive heavy metals.

Zou Ji, a vice dean of the School of Environment and Natural Resources at the Renmin University of China, told the Global Times that because heavy metals in soil do not decay over time and cannot be removed like organic pollutants, scientists have not yet found an economic and efficient way to convert heavily polluted land into arable land.

"After frequent consumption of poisonous food, heavy metals will accumulate in the human body and cause a series of ailments, which are irreversible and cannot be removed," said Zou.

Government measures

Environmental protection departments have vowed to fight heavy metal pollution to reduce industrial pollutants and cut down cases of metal poisoning.

According to the first five-year plan for the prevention of heavy metal pollution released in April, Beijing will pledge efforts to cut the emission of lead, mercury, chromium, cadmium and arsenic in key regions by 15 percent of the levels from 2007, by the year 2015.

Zhou Shengxian stressed that heavy metal pollution will be the top priority of this year's environmental protection campaign with a crackdown on illegal polluting manufacturing and the shutting down of factories emitting more heavy metal pollution than regulations allow.

Yang Yang, a lawyer from Friends of Nature, told the Global Times the country hasn't enacted a systematic law to curb heavy metal pollution, although there are individual laws against air and water pollution.

"The laws against heavy metal pollution are too scattered and lack detailed regulations on implementation, which makes execution difficult," said Yang.

"Metal pollution has not been taken seriously in some regions, because local officials put economic growth ahead of environmental protection," Wang told the Global Times.

In order to increase action by local governments against heavy metal pollution, Zhou urged the implementation of an environmental supervision responsibility and accountability system, stipulating that officials should be accountable for chemicals and dangerous waste pollution in their regions.

Editor:Zhang Jianfeng |Source: Global Times

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