(Adds health risks, quote)
By David Stanway and Niu Shuping
BEIJING, April 10 Soil samples across China have
revealed remnants of toxic heavy metals dating back at least a
century and traces of a pesticide banned in the 1980s, an
environmental official said on Wednesday, revealing the extent
of the country's pollution problems.
Street-level anger over air pollution that blanketed many
northern cities this winter spilled over into online appeals for
Beijing to clean water supplies, especially after rotting
corpses of thousands of pigs were found last month in a river
that supplies tap water to Shanghai.
Now Zhuang Guotai, head of the ecological department of the
Ministry of Environmental Protection, said a nationwide soil
survey showed the countryside had paid a heavy price for an
agricultural revolution that has seen grain production almost
double in the last 30 years, despite a much reduced workforce.
Soil pollution is regarded as one of China's most serious
health threats, contaminating the food chain with pesticide and
fertiliser run-offs as well as toxic elements like lead, arsenic
The problem is believed to be responsible for the high rate
of birth defects and cancer in some of China's old industrial
"There is a cost behind the nine consecutive years of bumper
grain harvests," Zhuang said at a conference in Beijing. "They
rely on the heavy use of fertilizer, but the country needs to
boost grain production so it is quite a difficult issue."
Zhuang noted that as much as 65 percent of the fertiliser in
China's countryside was improperly used and left to pollute
rivers and fields.
"All pollutants ultimately end up in the soil, and when we
did the soil survey, we saw that even metal pollution from a
hundred years ago was present, as well as the '666' pesticide
banned in the 1980s."
According to some researchers, as much as 70 percent of
China's soil is affected.
China routinely vows resolve in cleaning up pollution, but
little is ever done, due mainly to lack of enforcement in the
face of a corporate drive for profits.
China's cabinet, the State Council, said recently that it
would strive to establish a nationwide system to protect soil
from pollution, but not until 2020.
The disclosure of data is part of China's commitment to
improve transparency and allay widespread public suspicions that
the government has routinely covered up the extent of the damage
done by more than three decades of breakneck economic growth.
At the beginning of this year, Beijing agreed to improve the
way it monitored and disclosed air pollution in its major
cities. Just weeks later, record-high smog readings in the
Chinese capital forced the government to impose emergency
restrictions on cars and factories.
Zhuang said China aimed to release the results of the soil
survey very soon, two months after access to the data was denied
on the grounds that it was a "state secret".
He said the government always intended to disclose the
survey results, which took four years to compile.
But Fang Yan, the deputy head of the rural department of
China's state planning bureau, the National Development and
Reform Commission, warned that too much disclosure was
dangerous, noting that the reputation of the dairy industry
still hadn't recovered from a melamine scandal in 2007.
"We can handle many things relating to China's food safety
internally, and we mustn't stir things up because this will be
bad for the whole industry," she told the conference.
(Reporting by Niu Shuping and David Stanway; Editing by Nick