XIDITOU COUNTY, China (Reuters) - Once an isolated haven, the Chinese village of Liukuaizhuang is now a tainted hell, surrounded by scores of low-tech factories that are poisoning its water and air, and the health of many villagers.
One in fifty people there and in a neighboring hamlet have been diagnosed with cancer over the last decade, local residents say, well over ten times the national rate given in a health ministry survey earlier this year.
Many fear they are paying for the country’s breathtaking economic expansion with their lives, as surrounding plants making rubber, chemicals and paints pour out health-damaging waste.
“They asked in the hospital whether my family had a history of cancer. I said: ‘No, in the last three generations no one had it’,” one villager told Reuters, pulling out his x-rays and doctor’s diagnosis that he had lung cancer. “It must have a lot to do with the pollution here.”
Three decades of reforms and opening up since 1978 have transformed China from a rigidly ideological backwater into the world’s fourth largest economy, lifting millions out of poverty, but not without a price.
Nationwide there are dozens of places like Liukuaizhuang, where factories have blackened streams, poisoned farmland and choked the air.
Just 120 kilometers south of Beijing, Liukuaizhuang was a quiet village before the dramatic economic boom was kicked off by a series of low-key Communist reforms on Dec 18, 1978.
Twenty years later almost 100 chemical plants were scattered across what used to be farmland and thirty years on someone in almost every family is dead or dying of cancer -- the youngest just seven years old -- according to a local activist.
Officials agree that the area, dubbed a “cancer village” in domestic media, had a huge pollution problem, although they insist cancer rates are below the national average and all the worst-offending factories are now shuttered.
“The factories were not far from homes and to a certain degree influenced the normal life of the villagers,” said the Communist Party spokesman for the county, Huo Junwei.
“(But) we think figures provided by individuals exaggerate pollution problems in our area,” he said. “For several years we have been looking into whether there is a link between cancer and chemical production and have not yet got a scientific answer.”
In recent years, national leaders worried about the mixed legacy of chasing economic expansion at almost any cost have stepped up calls for a more equitable society and cleaner industry nationwide.
But the pollution around Liukuaizhuang was so rampant that a crackdown driven partly by health concerns began in 2003, long before greener growth became a ubiquitous government mantra.
And activists say waste water and toxic gasses are certainly causing some illness there, even if an apparent link with cancer has not been proved.
“Pollutants including heavy metals like mercury and lead have already got into the food chain and all these chemicals will affect the normal function of cells,” said Gao Zhong, an environmental economist with a non-governmental organization that works to clean the country’s polluted water.
Wong Tze-wai, an environmental health expert at the Chinese University in Hong Kong, said it would be premature to assume a link, but authorities should look into whether the number of cancer cases in the village was abnormally high, and if so, why.
“It’s important to investigate. We know that many industrial chemicals are carcinogenic and it is not unlikely that they can get into the eco-system,” he told Reuters.
The village’s richer inhabitants have backed that view by moving away, locals say, leaving behind the old, poor and ill. Some cannot afford even the most basic health precautions.
“We don’t have enough money to clean the water we drink. We put it all in a basin and let the pollutants sink,” said the daughter-in-law of one lung cancer sufferer.
All are reluctant to discuss the illness as they say health benefits were cut to victims who spoke out in the past, as well as one activist, Wang Dehua, who was jailed for several years.
“A lot of journalists came and went, but it did not change the situation at all,” said one middle-aged liver cancer patient whose husband was also diagnosed with cancer recently. Like all the other interviewees she refused to be named.
Some hope may ironically come from the global economic crisis, which is threatening so many Chinese jobs, as the world slowdown has dented demand for the products churned out from the country’s factories and so cut their waste.
The villagers say some of Liukuaizhuang’s bare bones factories, where paint is mixed in open drums in fume-filled warehouses guarded by vicious dogs, have already gone bust.
The crisis has also spurred Beijing to line up a multi-billion dollar stimulus package. Activist Gao hopes some of the cash will be spent on cleaner technology.
“Now we are facing financial turmoil. There is a good way to stimulate domestic demand and also keep society stable, which is to improve the environment to invest more into this so ... the country will be able to develop with quality,” he said.
However there is also a risk that Beijing’s leaders, facing rising unemployment and the social problems caused by a slowing economy, will relinquish environmental goals and ease pressure on the heavy industries that have created so much of both the country’s growth and its pollution.
Many in the “cancer village” fear the clean up is too late for them but they cling to hope that it will save their children and grandchildren from terminal illnesses.
“Of course I am worried, but what is the use of being worried?” said a lung cancer patient.
“We have to save our concern for the next generation.”
Additional reporting by Tan Ee Lyn in Hong Kong