Public agitation within Beijing’s smogosphere—including campaigns on Chinese social media and recent aggressive reporting from state-affiliated newspapers—has gradually prompted the government to release more data about air quality. It’s not the same as solving the problem, but the relative openness is an encouraging sign.
On water pollution, too, the government has gradually allowed more transparency. Last week China’s environmental ministry released planning documents that for the first time acknowledged the existence of the country’s “cancer villages”—locations where exposure to industrial chemicals has led to elevated levels of cancer. Over this year’s Spring Festival holiday, also known as the Chinese New Year, environmental journalist turned activist Deng Fei, who in 2009 posted a map online identifying the so-called cancer villages, launched the “Show Me a Dirty River Campaign”—encouraging citizens visiting their hometowns during the holidays to send in digital photos of polluted rivers and lakes.
But information about soil pollution remains a “state secret.” Or at least that’s what Beijing lawyer Dong Zhengwei was told when he recently requested data from a government survey conducted in 2006 by the environmental ministry and China’s ministry of land and resources. He filed an online information request on Jan. 30 and yesterday received an official reply that “The National Soil Pollution survey data are state secrets, according to the provisions of Article 14 of the Open Government Information Regulations,” as China’s Legal Daily newspaper reported.
“The current Law of Guarding State Secrets is easily abused by administrators,” Dong says. “They randomly define ‘state secrets’ and impede the disclosure of information and hinder the right of the public to know.”
Soil pollution has thus far received fairly limited public attention in China. “You can see with your own eyes when the air is smoggy, or see when the color of a river is wrong, but for soil pollution you need special equipment to check the levels of various elements,” says Chen Nengchang, a scientist at the Guangdong Institute of Eco-environmental and Soil Sciences. Yet, he cautions, the rampant overuse of fertilizer and pesticides in cropland and the seeping of heavy metals—such as lead, arsenic, and cadmium—from factories, smelters, and mines into the ground threaten the safety of China’s food supply.
Chen estimates that at least 15 of China’s 33 provinces and administrative zones have areas of severely contaminated soil. The problem is worst near the southeastern industrial zones, including parts of Guangdong province. Crops grown in or near polluted soils can absorb some chemicals and trace heavy metals. “If we eat contaminated foods, it can cause damage to the kidneys, liver, and other organs. In children, there can be developmental problems,” Chen says. “The health problems are caused by chronic exposure, not a sudden acute sickness.”
Scientists at his institute and others in China are trying to learn from Japan’s experience of restoring soils that were heavily polluted during the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. In the 1960s, Japan’s Jinzu River basin gained infamy for the high occurrence of an unusual disease that softened the bones. The disease was later linked to the consumption of rice polluted with cadmium from local mining operations.
Although little information is available to the Chinese public, soil pollution has recently received high-level attention. In November, Premier Wen Jiabao laid out basic guidelines for preventing soil pollution before a meeting of the State Council. Previously, in 2007, a professor at Nanjing Agricultural University collected rice samples from vendors across China and found that 10 percent of the rice samples contained elevated levels of cadmium. Says Dong, the environmental lawyer: “Soil pollution directly impacts people’s health, safety, and quality of life.”