Inside China's Secret and Heinous "Cancer Villages"

A recent spate of controversies in China such as contaminated baby formula remind us that the country still has a long way to go in effectively regulating its industries and addressing the concerns of its citizens. Nowhere is such bureaucratic inefficiency more disheartening than in the country's hundreds of villages, where thousands of farmers and other villagers have died or are suffering from serious diseases that are caused by pollution from nearby industrial enterprises.

This is a tragic manifestation of the long festering problems associated with China's rapid industrialization at all costs. The situation is so serious that even the central government has acknowledged that the high incidence of villagers' diseases is related to pollution from poorly regulated factories. However, the officials' sluggish pace of addressing these compounding environmental problems and health concerns could be the tipping point for a discontented populace.

Many of the cases involving cancer and birth defects have been linked to pollutants that only come from industrial sources. Substances used in tanning and electroplating industries such as chromium are some of the carcinogens that have been dumped into nearby water sources used for agriculture and personal consumption. Several rivers and other important waterways had temporarily turned scarlet in the past due to discharge from dye factories.

Many villagers are aware that their water sources and air quality have deteriorated since factories and energy plants were established near their towns, but they have had to endure their afflictions passively because retaliation could result in the loss of their land and property. For the patients and their families who primarily live on subsistence farming and small enterprises, the cost of medical treatment remains high and financially devastating.

Below is a map of some of the affected villages, published by journalist Deng Fei in 2009:

View China's Cancer Vilages in a larger map

Villagers cannot depend on local governments because officials are benefitting from the presence of these companies, which have stimulated the local and national economies. Local environmental agencies remain ineffective; they take the role of an admonishing parent, only to have these enterprises return to their environmentally deviant ways. Moreover, even though the central government has enacted legislation and tried to regulate pollution from highly polluting industries, the rapid proliferation of new enterprises has left the implementation and enforcement of environmental standards to often corrupt or negligent local administrators.

To be fair, some small-scale manufacturers and other enterprises in rural areas have attempted to abide by the regulations, but many of them do not have the resources to afford equipment for proper treatment of their wastes. This insufficiency is also rooted in the very nature of their establishment, for many rural enterprises are relatively unstable and can be shut down quickly if difficult circumstances arise. This low liability allows many companies to skirt around public accountability.

A number of solutions should be introduced and implemented in tandem in order to address the structural problems of industrial pollution:

1. The reduction of emissions China could reduce its emission output by implementing a carbon tax. Since China accounts for more than one-fifth of the world's carbon emissions, an emissions trading scheme (ETS) could reduce inefficiencies in heavy energy industries such as coal. The government has already introduced pilot schemes.

2. Local governments need to acknowledge and address public health concerns, as well as work with Beijing to implement environmental standards and regulate industrial manufacturers and local enterprises.

3. Be more stringent on large and small rural enterprises that are unable to comply with environmental standards by either shutting them down, or having them work with local committees and other rural enterprises to manage pollution.

4. Governments could help rural residents more by providing them with adequate health care and other social benefits that have hitherto primarily been available to their urban counterparts.

Health problems have always been linked to industrialization, even in developed countries such as the United States. However, China's immense rate of growth has created large groups of people who suffer from diseases and without the financial means for medical treatment or legal recourse. Such palpable discontent arising from bureaucratic negligence and incompetence could eventually upset the societal "harmony" so valued by the Chinese government unless there is cooperation between governmental bodies, enterprises, and grass-roots organizations to implement environmental reform and hold transgressors accountable.