Toxic dumping linked to hundreds of deaths in Chinese factory village

Kathleen McLaughlin reports from Dongguan, China

At first glance, there is little to distinguish Yuanfeng from any other village amid the vast urban sprawl that makes up China’s factory-scape of Dongguan.

This clump of brick farmhouses and small shops sandwiched between clothing, plastics and electronics factories is one of China’s dozens of “cancer villages,” – small towns where industrial pollution and other toxins have created cancer clusters. At least a dozen of the village’s 400 residents have died of cancer here in recent years,

Landfill at Yuanfeng

Landfill at Yuanfeng

many of them young, many of them felled by very rare cancers. Higher-than-average cancer rates have also been reported in nearby villages.

Villagers blame the massive factory dump that looms on the hill behind Yuanfeng, spewing acrid smoke into the air and apparently leaking toxins into the groundwater. The locals don’t know what has contaminated their water, but they have stopped drinking the local water and truck in supplies from neighboring wells. Higher-level governments have denied their requests for health exams and compensation, but have closed off the landfill and are working strange-sounding plans to turn the area into a power plant.

Yuanfeng is just another Chinese village poisoned by the dark side of China’s economic miracle. Breakneck speed development and industrial production over the past three decades have left scores  of places like this with hazardous environmental catastrophes and no resources to clean them up. Still, Yuanfeng might have a fighting chance: Mayor Deng Zhihong, who lost his 59-year-old father to cancer, has become an outspoken advocate for cleaning up the area.

While many of the cancer-stricken families are reticent to talk, Yuanfeng has made headlines in heavily censored China media, becoming a highly publicized example of industrial contamination. Regional and national newspapers have picked up on the story, adding pressure on local officials to act. Even so, day-to-day life remains bleak and education about how toxic chemical can infiltrate food is absent.

On the road leading up to the dump behind Yuanfeng, pig farmers feed and water their animals amid a haze of burning plastic. They don’t drink the water, they said. But the pigs do.

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