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Chinese heavy metals
November 9, 2011 7:01 PM   Subscribe

About one tenth of China's farmland is polluted with heavy metals, with whole villages being poisoned. All too frequently, local governments have reacted by ignoring the problems and even denying treatment (HRW report).
posted by jeffburdges (37 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
You find depressing shit to post about every day.

I'm in favor.
posted by Trurl at 7:07 PM on November 9, 2011


China is the perfect model for what happens when you have de facto deregulation in an industrialized country.

Poison in the toothpaste, poison in the baby formula, poison in your food, buildings that turn quakes from manageable disasters into mass slaughter, toxic levels of air pollution, sweatshops with suicide nets...
posted by yeloson at 7:21 PM on November 9, 2011 [37 favorites]


My instant (and shameful) reaction is to feel scared for myself and the chance that some of this food will end up on my plate. But at least I have choices; I can avoid this food and this poisoned harvest. The people I should feel scared for and worry about are the people living around these factories, dealing with lead poisoning their children and themselves, with no alternatives and little chance for reform.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 7:27 PM on November 9, 2011 [4 favorites]


This is really sad. I know some folks here in the States that are jumping on the China bandwagon (Invest! They are the future! They are the new superpower!). But because of the lack of any real or consistent environmental controls, what I see is a possible black (or gray) swan event that will make Fukishima look like a walk in the park.

And yes, I am aware that Fukishima is in Japan. I cite it as a recent example of what can go wrong when risk is not properly assessed.
posted by quadog at 7:30 PM on November 9, 2011 [4 favorites]


China is the perfect model for what happens when you have de facto deregulation in an industrialized country.

I was just cheering myself up reading a story (Ch.) about two young lads (18 and 15) from Burma who were inveigled by the promise of a job to a steel mesh workshop in Zhejiang where they were forced to work alongside other Burmese young men and boys for no pay in appalling conditions, including beatings. The two managed to escape, and were found by the police walking along an interstate three days later.

I worked down in the southwest for a while in a county that was cut through by one of the major tributaries of the Min, which flows through the Sichuan Basin, one of China's traditional agrarian heartlands. The place I was in was mountainous, and the hills had lead-zinc ore. The hillsides were dotted all over with illegal drift mines that processed their ore crudely with water, sluicing gallons of heavy-metal laden wash down into the Dadu. (Process was so crude actually met a guy on a train once who bought their slag and shipped it elsewhere to process properly - apparently the transport costs were worth it as an outsider would have had no chance of not getting fleeced by predatory local officials)
posted by Abiezer at 7:41 PM on November 9, 2011 [6 favorites]


Normally I don't really have a problem with a country choosing to pollute its own land... poor countries often have urgent needs that are more important than environmental protection. Many US cities were so dark from coal dust they ran street lights 24/7, and when we got rich enough to care, we fixed the problem.

The thing about heavy metals, though, is that they're not temporary. Someday China is going to be rich enough and open enough that people will demand a fix to the heavy metal contamination problem. But there isn't a fix, short of bringing in all new soil at incredible expense. (Imagine 10% of China's farm land as a Superfund site.)

That's what makes this a particularly nasty form of pollution. China isn't exchanging some money for some health problems. It's exchanging some money today for health problems forever.

Makes me feel less bad about throwing the occasional battery in the trash though.
posted by miyabo at 7:45 PM on November 9, 2011 [5 favorites]


There are many other places where poor construction has made earthquakes deadly, yeloson, but the authoritarianism and shear pace of industrialization makes so many problems worse in China.
Yeah, avoiding that reaction myself is exactly why I didn't drop this into one of the open China threads, lesbiassparrow.
posted by jeffburdges at 7:45 PM on November 9, 2011


I guess this is linked to the previous FPP about the stripping of pollen from honey. That would allow the end consumer to track its location of production.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 7:59 PM on November 9, 2011


Normally I don't really have a problem with a country choosing to pollute its own land... poor countries often have urgent needs that are more important than environmental protection.
I take your point, but the thing here is it's not 'the country' choosing to do it; on the ground, it's a corrupt official-entrepreneur class who (in extreme cases) can and do have local objectors disappeared if they complain. At a higher level there's a blind eye being turned*, in my view because the dominant factions, in some ways that corrupt class writ large, have made GDP growth almost the be-and-and-end-all (since it's also a key part of their 'hang on to power at all costs' plans too).

* there's a cautionary tale, if I recall the details right, of an enthusiastic head of the ministry not long after it was upgraded from the lower-ranked-status of State Environmental Protection Administration assuming this meant he was supposed ot do his job and doing a name-and-shame of some of the worst polluters, only to be promoted sideways in short order.
posted by Abiezer at 7:59 PM on November 9, 2011 [8 favorites]


Bringing up Japan on this thread is actually relevant as many rivers in that country were heavily polluted with heavy metals such as cadmium, thanks to mining in watersheds until the middle of the last century. Many of Japan's urban centers were heavily polluted well into the 80s... Now heavy metal contamination is just a memory, and Tokyo has gone so far as to heavily regulate diesel vehicles.

China's problem is obviously far greater in scope, and I try to avoid buying food from China, but I don't think the situation is hopeless.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:17 PM on November 9, 2011 [2 favorites]


Here's the sidelined (vice, as it turns out) minister: Pan Yue.
posted by Abiezer at 8:17 PM on November 9, 2011


But because of the lack of any real or consistent environmental controls, what I see

yeah, China's problems shouldn't be marginalised, but westerners often like to pretend that these things weren't very similar in our own countries only a few short decades ago. This is a problem in China, certainly, but it's problem most countries have faced, are facing, or will face in the future.
posted by smoke at 8:22 PM on November 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm hoping those guys can economize environmental remediation via waste biotemplated into useful materials. Some of the sino IGEM teams had projects along those lines
posted by MisplaceDisgrace at 8:22 PM on November 9, 2011


The Warriors of Qiugang. The film chronicles the story of the Chinese village of Qiugang and its battle against three polluting chemical factories. Nominated for Academy Award this past year.
posted by stbalbach at 8:33 PM on November 9, 2011 [2 favorites]


Bringing up Japan on this thread is actually relevant as many rivers in that country were heavily polluted with heavy metals such as cadmium, thanks to mining in watersheds until the middle of the last century.

Itai-itai disease

posted by 445supermag at 8:33 PM on November 9, 2011


This is what happens when you deregulate new-building inspection... Or somebody pays off the local inspector, or something.
posted by thewalrus at 8:36 PM on November 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


...westerners often like to pretend that these things weren't very similar in our own countries only a few short decades ago.

Really? I've always thought that the whole reason why these sorts of things happening in China and other developing countries is because it's exactly like the state of things in Western countries a century ago and more recently.
posted by XMLicious at 8:47 PM on November 9, 2011 [3 favorites]


The thing is, china is industrializing at such a rapid pace and on such a huge scale that there at least some difference between the us in the 70s and china today.

Even here in the us you see coal and oil companies advertising how awesome they are on tv, talking about how they're all earth friendly now, even in a democracy, you can still end up supporting environmental destruction. I mean if this happened in the US then it's not like you can blame a lack of democracy
posted by delmoi at 9:00 PM on November 9, 2011


*...why these sorts of things happening in China and other developing countries is alarming is because...
posted by XMLicious at 9:01 PM on November 9, 2011


Perhaps somebody better informed on the science can tell me if this is wrong, but the other impression I have of what makes China's environmental problems more severe is that it's an arable-land-poor country despite being so big (half is mountains and deserts), with many regions having been farmed intensively for millennia. So you get a density of agriculture and industry in almost all the inhabitable parts of the country, and many of these were already in incipient crisis in the late Qing - there's not the sort of slack you might get/have had elsewhere.
posted by Abiezer at 9:12 PM on November 9, 2011


Abiezer, a while ago, I heard Tariq Ali give a lecture, where he told an anecdote about an historian colleague being summoned/invited to give a talk to the Chinese politburo, or whatever it's called. He asked what they could possibly be interested in, and the answer was "we want to know your view on how Victorian England avoided a popular revolution." I think the focus on economic growth is part of that.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 9:12 PM on November 9, 2011 [3 favorites]


The Privileges of China’s Elite Include Purified Air
posted by homunculus at 9:28 PM on November 9, 2011 [2 favorites]


Whoa. Actual Perri-air.
posted by XMLicious at 9:34 PM on November 9, 2011 [2 favorites]


it's exactly like the state of things in Western countries a century ago and more recently.

I try to cheer myself up by thinking my host country is "just going through its Robber Baron phase". It sure is wild though seeing the local Rockefellers and Vanderbilts of the respectable future making their dirty fortunes right in front of you.
posted by BinGregory at 10:04 PM on November 9, 2011 [2 favorites]


While we wring our hands over China's environmental corruption, we continue to show little compunction about buying the inexpensive products their exploited labour.
If there ain't no audience, there ain't no show.
posted by islander at 10:17 PM on November 9, 2011 [2 favorites]


"Outsourcing pollution"
posted by KokuRyu at 10:46 PM on November 9, 2011 [3 favorites]


Speaking as a recent visitor, the cavalier attitude by members of the Chinese elite toward ordinary Chinese people is obvious and little stunning. Just came back from a trip to China which began with 5 days in Beijing. The smothering air pollution was visible as a deep brown haze blocking a view of the ground for miles as our plane landed, then a palpable stinging presence in our eyes and noses for the whole stay. Yet it wasn't surprising to read the NYT article homunculus links to above, about how China's elite protects their own lungs. Similarly, here's an interesting article about what happens when party bigwigs want expensive land they can exploit.
posted by bearwife at 11:09 PM on November 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


A big issue in my country at the moment is a US power grab masquerading as a free trade agreement, the TPPA, where the US negotiating position is to demand domestic legislation that would drastically alter our patent and copyright regimes in favour of US corporates.

Outraged as I am by this, I can't help feeling it would be neat if free trade agreements with China were made conditional on adopting minimum environmental and labour practises. A major reason the developed world's manufacturers find it cheaper to outsource to China is that Chinese producers aren't hamstrung by pesky emission regulations and employee safety measures. We'd make it more economic to manufacture at home again or improve conditions in China or both that way.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 11:12 PM on November 9, 2011 [4 favorites]


I don't understand why someone would argue that since western countries once polluted extensively that other countries should get a pass.

We are smarter now and there are alternatives. Whereas a hundred years ago, the population was smaller, we didn't have the tech, and we could argue that we didn't know better. China has no such excuse, the people in power don't really care.

Also, if ignoring environmental standards and working conditions is the competitive advantage that lets our imports to be made so cheaply, I would like to see a tariff imposed to create parity for out domestic industries. I know it probably goes against WTO rules, but I would like to launch that body into the sun anyway.
posted by psycho-alchemy at 12:04 AM on November 10, 2011 [6 favorites]


Just in case the consequences of This Sort Of Thing in a global economy aren't clear, this story coincides with a survey that a great deal of honey on sale may be contaminated Chinese honey with its origin disguised.

Expect a lot more of this as regulators are defunded and regulatory capture increases.

Me, I'd keep a bee.
posted by Devonian at 12:37 AM on November 10, 2011


And here's the Peoples' Daily (official state newspaper) opinion piece semi-rebutting the air filter article. It's a fascinating lesson in propoganda how they manage to not once actually claim that the air is clean, but go on a tangent about how there's many companies competing in the air filter manufacturing industry...
posted by thewalrus at 1:28 AM on November 10, 2011


I read the China Daily this morning (I'm in Beijing on business this week, up from Shenzhen). They are now conducting tours of the air sampling facility in Beijing to try and improve its standing since no-one trusts their reports compared to the US Embassy pollution reports.

I can tell I'm in Beijing without even looking out the window as my eyes are smarting and my nose is irritated.

Don't get me started on food safety.
posted by arcticseal at 1:37 AM on November 10, 2011


Right scenario, wrong country
posted by flabdablet at 1:38 AM on November 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


Sadly, China's "Robber Baron phase" has been going on since before China existed, back when the robbers were real barons. Despite the efforts of immensely talented people, the history of China is failed land reform, serial exploitation of the poor, and corruption at all levels. The stakes are higher, with industrial pollution, but the game has not changed.
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:49 AM on November 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


a typical question after i give a speech on urban agriculture is whether it's safe to eat city-grown food. i say it's good to know the local history of the the site and to test the soil if you're unsure, but your scrutiny might be better focused on all the food you eat without thinking from scary places like china.
posted by ecourbanist at 4:59 AM on November 10, 2011


So, if China is the new empire, is this the shit they're going to export to their vassal states, in Africa?
posted by Goofyy at 6:35 AM on November 10, 2011


Goofyy: right question, wrong tense. This is what they're exporting right now to their vassal states.
posted by ocschwar at 6:04 PM on November 10, 2011 [2 favorites]


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