Dangerous Elements: Heavy Metal Pollution in China

Paul Mooney reports for the South China Morning Post on heavy metal contamination from industries such as e-waste recycling and textile manufacture. The pollution can devastate health and agricultural livelihoods, but those affected feel powerless in the face of campaigns of harassment by factory owners and complicit officials.

In February, Caixin, a leading news weekly, quoted soil expert Chen Tongbin, a research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources (Environmental Remediation Research Centre), as saying 10 per cent of China’s farmland had been contaminated by heavy metals, the leading culprits being cadmium and arsenic ….

Much of the Pearl River Delta has been polluted by heavy metals, according to an investigation conducted by the State Environmental Protection Administration. The study found that 40 per cent of farms and vegetable plots in the region had been polluted by heavy metals ….

Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, says weak enforcement means there is a lack of incentive for manufacturers and buyers to act. Experts say companies are reluctant to spend money on advanced pollution-control equipment because that would cut into profits in a competitive environment. And, says Ma, local officials are “still putting gross domestic product ahead of environmental protection and public health”.

Even when polluters are punished, says Ma, “the penalty is not sufficient to really discourage [them]. The cost of violating is still lower than the cost of compliance. So we see some of the factories having problems year after year, just paying [the fines] without solving the problem.”

Ma warns that heavy metals pose a bigger threat than most other pollutants because they don’t decompose naturally, instead becoming more concentrated over time. Furthermore, victims of industrial pollution have limited legal protection.