A Cancer Cycle, From Here to China
An aniline spill in Shanxi on New Year’s Eve caused extended disruption of water supplies in the downstream Hebei city of Handan earlier this month. Public anger at the authorities’ five-day cover-up then led to four sackings, a mayoral apology, and pressure on Shanxi’s new princeling Party chief, Li Xiaopeng.
As the “airpocalyptic” pollution blanketing Beijing over the weekend inspires comparisons from various quarters with the devastating London smog of 1952, Dan Fagin writes at the International Herald Tribune about the Handan incident’s Western precursors.
For me, reading about Handan prompted a sick feeling of déjà vu. For the last five years I have been writing a history of the chemical industry’s egregious 60-year involvement in the New Jersey shore town of Toms River, which gained unwanted notoriety in the late 1990s thanks to a remarkably well-documented cluster of childhood cancer cases and a long history of often hidden industrial pollution.
[…] The reality of 21st-century globalism […] is that none of us can pretend that by pushing the chemical industry out of our communities we have stopped enabling its dangerous practices. The industry jobs that started in Basel, and then migrated to Cincinnati and Toms River, are now in Shanxi Province and other coal-rich areas of China. BASF alone now owns or invests in 45 Chinese ventures. Meanwhile, hundreds of smaller companies like the Tianji Coal Chemical Industry Group, whose Changzhi factory was the source of last week’s leak, are busy turning coal into aniline and a host of other chemical products.
Business is booming. If you don’t believe me, head over to the Ocean County Mall in Toms River, where you can get a pair of jeans dyed just the right shade of faded blue, thanks to aniline-based indigo dye. They’re made in China, and they’re cheap — if you don’t count the long-term cost.
The price, however, is already being paid. According to Caixin, the chemical spill in Changzhi on December 31 was the latest in a series of 18 major water pollution accidents in the span of just eight years. From Jiling to Guangdong, Jiangsu to Yunnan, industrial centers across China have been embroiled in a spate of water calamities whose damage and frequency are staggering. For ordinary people who depend on these water sources, however, the crisis last week — and the hasty cover-up that ensued — only revived their misgivings about government accountability. Suppression of news from the source, a common practice of local officials, was arguably more deadly than the contamination itself.
[…] Even as toxins seeped in, altering the fate of residents who depended on it, Zhuo Zhang River continued its normal flow — slow, steady, as if nothing had changed. The human lives that it traversed, however, changed course suddenly, though the full impact of spill on human health and the environment will take years, if not decades, to reveal. In the meantime, however, some have chosen to decisively shape the flow of events that follow: On January 9, @吴喆华, a journalist of Radio China, reported on his Weibo account that the Winter Swimming Association of Handan had decided to sue Tianji Coal Chemical — the first civil litigation after the crisis. More, he suggested, will follow.