For many Chinese, the country’s soil pollution crisis has become increasingly acute in recent weeks after several hundred children fell ill from attending a school built close to a former fertiliser factory.
Almost 500 students at the Changzhou Foreign Languages School suffered symptoms such as skin inflammation, eczema and bronchitis after taking lessons at a school that had only been open for six months, raising questions about what the school authorities knew.
The school was built close to a former fertiliser factory site, and the 400 mu (266,700 square metres) dump had been owned by three chemical factories. Of these, the biggest was Changlong Chemicals, a fertiliser and pesticides company that had already been investigated for breaching environmental regulations. The company operated on the site for 50 years before relocating in 2009 and some of the chemicals detected at the school are extremely toxic.
A Chinese Central Television report on April 17 brought the case to nationwide attention, prompting the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) and the provincial government to launch a joint investigation.
The school’s authorities initially responded by publishing an open letter accusing the media of exaggerating circumstances, but then cooperated with investigations and created a microsite to publish public updates.
The incident has given rise to comparisons with the Love Canal scandal in the US in the late 1970s, when residents of an industrial town near the Canadian border found that buried toxic waste has seeped into their homes and made many of them ill.
The Changzhou case is the latest in a spate of toxic soil scandals involving schools across China. In the last decade, four other serious incidences have emerged. The continued failure to clean up polluted sites, and a lack of public disclosure relating to the operation of chemical companies, has hampered progress.
The Changzhou school site has been passed on to shopping mall developers who have already started planting trees in the polluted soil.
In order to get confirmation that their children had become ill through attending the school, parents of students called a third party company to test the air and water at the site. They found heavy metals iron, chromium and arsenic in the soil, and organic pollutants such as acetone, benzene, toluene and dichloromethane in the air.
Chemical pollutants such as chlorobenzene and carbon tetrachloride were discovered in the soil and water at levels tens of thousands of times higher than those legally permitted.
Under pressure to respond to the scandal, the government started to monitor air, soil and water quality in and around the campus, after the school denied responsibility for the illnesses.
Six monitoring points have been set up on school grounds to collect air quality data, in addition to two more in Changzhou city itself which will provide comparative data. Initial data suggest nothing unusual about the air quality surrounding the school.
A team of medical experts say the school’s water meets national standards and food hygiene is adequate. Furthermore, attendance records show that there have been no outbreaks of infectious diseases at the school. At the time of writing, an official government investigation into the soil pollution was underway.
A recently published survey found that 80% of China’s agricultural land is polluted which will cost an estimated US$1 trillion to clean up. However, Chen Nengchang of the independent Guangdong Institute of Eco-environmental and Soil Sciences, said that survey may have been imprecise through its use of sampling.
Luo Qian, a deputy pharmaceuticals researcher with the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Shenzhen Institutes of Advanced Technology, told reporters that chlorobenzene – a chemical detected on the school site - “accumulates in the human body and will gradually damage the liver and kidneys and irritate the skin and mucous membranes.” While carbon tetrachloride – also detected – is toxic to embryos.
A number of experts, including Chen Tongbin, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Geographical Sciences and Guo Biao, professor at Peking University’s School of Public Health, say that short term exposure to these pollutants is unlikely to cause cancer but may cause ‘sub-acute’ poisoning. Long term exposure means a higher risk of leukaemia and lymphatic cancer.
Instead of removing the soil, a new layer will simply be laid on top and the contaminated earth left to further pollute groundwater supplies, which critics say is indicative of the government’s failure to enforce accountability for the complicated task of soil remediation.
Weak oversight has led to a number of chemical pollution incidents in China, some involving Changlong Chemicals. In 2015, over 10,000 tonnes of chemical waste was discovered under a pig farm in Jingjiang, about an hour’s drive from the Changzhou site and the company’s headquarters. Some of that waste was traced to Changlong. In late 2014, the province's top court ordered six companies to pay a total of 160 million yuan for polluting rivers – Changlong’s share of that sum was 85 million yuan (US$13 million).
During construction of the Songjiazhuang subway station in Beijing in 2004 three workers fainted while doing excavation work. It was later discovered that the site had belonged to a fertiliser factory, and the polluted soil was later removed and incinerated.
A similar incident in Wuhan, central China’s most populous city, involved a fertiliser factory site that was sold to a developer. The buyer was not made aware that the site was polluted. When construction started in 2007 workers mysteriously fell ill. The vendor later had to refund the developer’s purchase price and pay 120 million yuan (US$18.5 million) in compensation.
Meanwhile, in Heshan a village in Hunan province north of Wuhan, local authorities found that 70% of land in the city was polluted to some extent, with 296,800 cubic metres of soil contaminated. Major pollutants included organic phosphorus and chlorine, with contamination reaching to an average depth of 1.8 metres – and 9 metres at some points. Experts estimated it would cost 280 million yuan (US$43 million) to fully restore all sites in Heshan.
The new soil law
Three decades of urbanisation has seen China’s cities expand to surround fertiliser and chemical factories that were originally built far from human settlements. When land prices rise the factories relocate, leaving mounds of toxic earth behind them. Cleaning contaminated soil is a notoriously difficult, intensive and expensive process and cleaning up heavily polluted sites can take years, if not decades.
A lack of awareness surrounding the dangers of soil pollution, weak legislation and poor implementation where construction often starts before environmental impact assessments are approved, are holding back progress.
On April 25 Chen Jining, minister of environmental protection, said that a long-awaited action plan for dealing with soil pollution will be released and implemented this year, along with a detailed survey of soil pollution.
That survey is still under discussion but will focus on agricultural land use construction rather than industrial sites which remain neglected.
China’s efforts, which mirror the development of US Superfunds, should address the current environmental laws.
2012 An MEP circular establishes guidelines for cleaning up brownfield land for redevelopment
2014 Revisions to the1989 Environmental Protection Law strengthen penalties for polluters and enshrine the public’s right to access environmental data
2015 Beijing pledges approximately US$450 million over the next three years to help 30 Chinese cities tackle heavy metal pollution
2016 A 10-point soil action plan is drawn up
2017 The national Soil Pollution Prevention and Control Law is expected to come into force