Dateline investigates the increase in cancer cases in rural China, which is being blamed on toxic industrial waste poisoning the water supply.
Tuesday, May 15, 2012 - 21:32

The Chinese government claims it's making serious efforts to clean up pollution, and in the densely populated cities it appears to be having success.

But does it just mean the most toxic industries are being moved to sparsely populated rural areas?

Adrian Brown reports from two farming communities which have been labelled 'cancer villages'.

Untreated industrial waste poisoning the water supply is being blamed for an increase in cancer cases, which are up to four times the global average.

One couple tell Adrian that they've lost not only their 15-year-old son, but their entire livelihood, because their animals and land have been poisoned by a chromium dump.

With over 500 similar areas identified across the country by campaigners, what is being done to stop the growth of China's pollution cancer?

WATCH - Click to see Adrian's report.

MAPPING THE CANCER VILLAGES - Find out more about the difficult task of mapping the cancer villages and tackling the pollution problem, including an interactive map of some of the affected areas.

HUMAN RIGHTS AWARDS - This story was subsequently one of the finalists in the English Language Television category of the 17th Annual Human Rights Press Awards, held in Hong Kong in April 2013. Follow the links to read more.

Photo: Greenpeace

Mapping The Cancer Villages

Xinglong, featured in Adrian’s report, is one of the places that’s had the most media attention, but it’s estimated there are more than 500 cancer villages across China.

Investigative journalist Deng Fei helped put together a map showing the spread of villages in 2009. Many are near the east coast, but studies since suggest increased movement inland to poorer and less educated areas.

Use the map below to see more, and read English translations of some of the featured articles here.

View China's Cancer Villages in a larger map

The cancer areas have also been mapped by Lee Liu from the University of Central Missouri for Environment Magazine.

He believes water contamination from industrial pollution is the main cause of cancer villages. Many are clustered around major rivers, which have become heavily polluted from industry based near waterways.

'These industries have contributed to rapid GDP growth in their regions," he writes, but 'this growth has been achieved at the expenses of the health and lives of poor villagers"¦ leading to the devastation of the village economies."

Lee Liu is critical of government controls on the media, legal system and NGOs, which he says have allowed the problem to spread because of a lack of reporting.

Reliable figures on cancer deaths in China are hard to obtain, but at least an 80% increase in cancer deaths has been reported since the start of economic reforms more than 30 years ago.

Chinese farmers are now said to be four times more likely to die from liver cancer than the global average. Rural areas have also reported higher mortality rates than urban areas from liver, stomach, oesophageal and cervical cancers.

Testing pollution

Last year, Greenpeace carried out tests in Xinglong to assess the pollution. In an underground aquifer, it found water that tested hundreds of times over the safe limit for chromium.

Chromium is a heavy metal used in the manufacture of materials like stainless steel and tanned leather. It occurs naturally in small amounts in the earth's crust, but according to the World Health Organization, larger amounts can pollute drinking water and cause cancer.

Ma Tianjie from Greenpeace reported that people were planting crops barefoot and putting their animals out on the contaminated land, because they just weren’t aware of the danger from the 5,000 tons of hazardous waste dumped nearby.

Greenpeace says its research and the subsequent media attention have helped, with China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection announcing a national crackdown on chromium waste sites.

But chromium is extremely difficult to dispose of. Greenpeace says some contaminated sites in the US are still not completely clean after 30 years of work, so China still has a long way to go.

Find out more by following the links above and reading the articles under 'other perspectives' on the right-hand side of the page.

Sources: China Digital Times/Environment/Guardian/Greenpeace/World
Health Organization



The Chinese economy continues to expand, but it's come at a huge personal cost to some. It seems that pollution runs hand in hand with development, and one of the side effects of China's race to become the world's most powerful economy has been large stockpiles of toxic waste spread around the country. And as Adrian Brown discovered, in remote settlements, far away from whatever codes of practise is in place in the major cities, the locals are paying with their lives.

REPORTER: Adrian Brown

Twice a week Wu Zhuliang takes his family on a sad pilgrimage, through the parched landscape of this remote and impoverished corner of South Western China. In a small elevated clearing, we approach the final resting place of Wu's 15-year-old son.

WU ZHULIANG (Translation): We feel this area is higher, it looks a little bit better, so we buried him here.

Wu Wenyong was buried just a month ago after succumbing to cancer. Beside his grave, an array of simple offerings - fruit, biscuits and a paper cup of his favourite sweets.

WU ZHULIANG (Translation): I always talk to him when I come here. "œWhy didn't you have a good life son?" "œWhy did you leave us so young and so soon?"

The boy's mother, Qi Xueying is inconsolable- she is haunted by memories of her son's final painful hours.

QI XUEYING (Translation): The night before he died, he was in too much pain and he said to me 'Mum, I can't bear it anymore." He was on the 20th floor and he said "œI can't take it anymore. Open the window and I'll jump out."

Wu Wenyong had two types of cancer, leukaemia and thymoma, a rare cancer of the thymus gland in the chest. These pictures were taken just days before he died.

QI XUEYING (Translation): I said "œIf there's no more hope for you to live, then there is no more hope for us either." He was in so much pain, I couldn't control my tears. He told me to stop crying, that I still had his brother and father. He asked me to be strong.

The Nanpan River is close to the field where the young Wu would help his parents tend rice. He would often paddle in these waters which Mr Wu says became tainted yellow by pollution. These subsistence farmers used the same water to irrigate the now bone dry soil. It's a practice that still goes on.

REPORTER: Is it dangerous to use water from the river?

WU ZHULIANG (Translation): Of course it's risky, but we have no other choice: We only have this river.

The village of Xinglong is in the middle of a large industrial park. Heavy industry is all around. But the real danger is here. Overlooking the Wu's field is a ram shackle warehouse that conceals a vast pile of chromium waste. Mr Wu says that when it rains run off from the toxic slag heap leaches into the river. Like his parents, the young Wu Wenyong was oblivious to the dangers.

WU ZHULIANG (Translation): He followed us as we worked, so he always played around here.

REPORTER: Did you know it was dangerous for him to play here?

WU ZHULIANG (Translation): We didn't know, we had absolutely no idea. We didn't know it was toxic until it was reported on TV.

Chromium is listed as a carcinogen by the World Health Organisation, in large doses it is can have lethal effects on both humans and animals alike.

QI XUEYING (Translation): I think my child got sick because, when he was little, he followed his grandfather near the factory, herding the cows and sheep every day. We used to have a lot of cows, some of them just died. We did not know why.

REPORTER: What is chromium and how dangerous is it to health?

MA TIANJIE, GREENPEACE: Chromium is a heavy metal substance widely used in industries like leather tanning or electro plating. It is a known carcinogen to the scientific community around the world. Many occupational disease and even cancer is linked to this very toxic heavy metal.

Ma Tianjie of Greenpeace has been to Xinglong to investigate the chromium waste dump and its effects on two adjoining villages.

MA TIANJIE: We did find cancer victims in those villages.

REPORTER: How many?

MA TIANJIE: We met several of them, but we were told was there were 20 to 30 cases in these villages recently.

REPORTER: Would you classify that as being serious?

MA TIANJIE: Definitely it's a serious health hazard for the villages near the pollution facility.

Ma carried out tests on the river water close to the factory where the chromium waste is still being produced.

MA TIANJIE: It was very serious. When we tested the water near the polluting site we found that it's about 200 times higher than the national standard.


MA TIANJIE: Yes. So by simply touching the water, it could make your skin itchy, because chromium is known for its effect on the skin. So, it's a very, very serious problem.

WU ZHULIANG (Translation): I called the Environmental Protection Bureau, I said "œMy son is dead, where should we send the body?" "œHow will the factory resolve this?" He just told me over the phone not to make any trouble. They'll come up with reasons to fob off us villagers. It has always been like this.

Adding to their pain, the Wu family is now broke.

QI XUEYING (Translation): We used to have more than ten cows and 20-odd sheep, we have sold them all.

The couple got $150 from the local government, but that was dwarfed by their son's medical bills. In all they have borrowed more than $15,000 from relatives and other villagers, now they face losing their home too.

QI XUEYING (Translation): Financially we are really badly off, we have sold everything at the house. We used to be quite well-off in the village.

Its name in English means "prosperous" but Xinglong feels more like the village of the damned. I meet Wang Jinxiang who has built a shrine to her middle aged daughter, she died just four days earlier.

WANG JINXIANG (Translation): Got cancer, cancer.... got cancer. Liver cancer.

INTERPRETER (Translation): Why?

WANG JINXIANG (Translation): After eating crops. She ate the crops, used the polluted water, so she got cancer.

Soon the people are lining up to tell their stories. This man lost his father to liver cancer. Another woman tells me she has lost her son.

QINGGLAN SUN (Translation): He was always healthy, a strong 26-year-old young man. He didn't have any illnesses, he was engaged to a girl and he was about to get married, but then he feel ill and died before he was married.

REPORTER: Do you think that your husband's cancer was caused by pollution from nearby factories?

WOMAN (Translation): It is definitely because of the waste near Nanpan River. He got his test results in October and died in March. Of course we worry about it, we always will.

WU ZHULIANG (Translation): Those still alive are always afraid of being affected by the pollution.

More than 1,000 kilometres to the north is the village of Xiadian. Here too untreated industrial waste is pumped directly into rivers. The fetid flow used to irrigate farmers' fields.

DENG FEI, JOURNALIST (Translation): The girl used to live around here.

It is here I meet investigative journalist Deng Fei, he calls these villages 'cancer villages'. He has identified more than 500 across the country, yet China's media is no longer interested, he says.

DENG FEI (Translation): Many people would like the media to report on this, to reveal their predicament. But the media is reluctant to report on this. Too many cases.

The Chinese government says it's making serious efforts to clean up pollution. In the cities it may be having some success. But often the most toxic industries are simply moved to rural areas where regulations are lax. Chinese farmers are now four times more likely to die from liver cancer than the global average.

DENG FEI (Translation): People who get sick because of pollution seldom win a legal case.

REPORTER: Whose side is the government on?

DENG FEI (Translation): Government officials and entrepreneurs are good friends.

But the backlash may have begun. In a remarkable display of defiance, thousands of demonstrators confronted riot police in the northern city of Dalian. The protest forced the government to relocate a chemical factory - a rare victory for people power in China. The village of Xinglong has seen protests too, and you can sense the anger mounting once more.

MAN (Translation): The factory was set up in 1998, during all those years the factory has polluted our environment and the air, serious pollution. The factory is protected by the Chinese government, so it's pollution is also protected. It's like making nuclear bombs to harm your own people.

We wanted to meet representatives of the chromium factory, but in the end they came to us. The warehouse security guard had been watching us film and reported back to the factory's managers.

REPORTER: He told us to leave so I presume he is going to call the police. So they are a bit worried, are they? They want us to go?

We took the family home. But then our car was stopped.

WOMAN: This guy wants to ask who we are, why we are here. He is threatening us in a very polite way that he can assist us. He wants us to go to the factory now, OK?

REPORTER: Yeah, thank you.

It was clear it was going to be difficult for us to leave without doing what they wanted. We were escorted into the plant's offices. An hour later we were allowed to go. Inside they were very pleasant but they wanted to know whether we had official permission from Beijing to be here. We don't. They said if we came back tomorrow there might be problems, so subtle intimidation and a reminder of just how sensitive this issue is.

The company won't comment so we don't know how, when or even if it will ever dispose of the chromium.

MA TIANJIE: This pile of chromium waste has been there for two decades now. We don't know when it will go away. The government is trying to find a way to get rid of this huge pile of historically accumulated waste but they are struggling at this moment.

It leaves the Wu family feeling powerless.

QI XUEYING (Translation): I think about him in the hospital in Kunming every day. He just wanted to know if there was a chance to find out the real reason he'd got sick, so that we could avoid it. He was always in the field with his grandfather. He said if the real cause came from the field, then we must give up those fields.

But without their land the Wu family will be left with nothing. Like the others in Xinglong they have no choice but to live side by side with the chromium pile they believe killed their son.

MARK DAVIS: What a horror story. Adrian Brown reporting from China. Our website has a background feature on the research into the cancer villages and if you are in China, as many in our web audience are, you can find a map showing some of the affected areas.






Original Music Composed by VICKI HANSEN

Additional footage and stills courtesy of Greenpeace

15th May 2012