Arsenic, Cancer Villages and Contaminated Water in China

16 Mar

The revolutionary changes in China, over the past three decades, have transformed China from a poor, subsistence farming country to the leading export country of the world. However, this comes with high environmental and human costs. Up to 40% of China’s river’s are polluted, including China’s two main rivers, the Yangtze River and the Yellow River (Elizabeth C, 2013). The main causes of pollution are sewage, fertilizers and pesticides in agricultural wastewater, chemicals and dyes in industrial factory wastewater, petrochemical wastewater and domestic waste (Iberlekamp, 2013). Roughly 18% of water usage in China comes from groundwater, with more than 400 of about 655 cities in China having no alternative drinking water sources (Li, 2013). All of these factors have partly contributed to the average of 60,000 premature deaths in China each year (Elizabeth C, 2013).

Clean and safe drinking water is especially important for children as it impacts their physical development and mental abilities (Unicef, 2014). Arsenic is a chemical that occurs naturally in groundwater in various different countries, however, it is a highly toxic chemical which can cause serious harm to people if found in drinking water, water used in cooking and irrigation of food products (WHO, 2014). People are at risk from developing skin lesions, cancer or other harmful medical conditions if they are repeatedly exposed to arsenic within water. Arsenic is also used in factories as an alloying agent for producing a wide range of different products from textiles to glass. Almost 20 million Chinese residents live in areas that are at high risk of their water supply becoming contaminated by arsenic (Mohamed, 2013). Arsenic contamination is becoming so common and widespread that the Chinese government have flagged it as being one of the country’s “most important endemic diseases” (Mohamed, 2013). A recent study in China has shown that 14.7 million people are at risk from arsenic contamination with levels higher than those considered safe by the World Health organisation, 6 million of these people are thought to be at risk of water being contaminated by levels which are 5 times higher than World Health Organisation’s recommended safe level (Mogamed, 2013). The Ministry of Health reports that increased pollution in water has made cancer China’s leading cause of death.

The term ‘Cancer Villages’ emerged a few years ago after Chinese journalists came across reports and other forms of evidence of peculiarly high rates of cancer in industry dominated villages in China (McKenzie, 2013). Scientists are convinced that the high cancer rates in these cities are caused by factories dumping their wastewater into the rivers which many people rely on for different purposes including drinking and farming.  New cases of cancer villages seem to emerge monthly linked with the fact that cancer rates has sharply risen by 80% in China in the last 30 years. In 2007, one in five people were killed from cancer in China (Watts, 2010). The carcinogenic pollution has become so bad that Chinese farmers are now twice as likely to die from stomach cancer and four times more likely to die from liver cancer when compared to the global average (Watts, 2010). In 2010, journalist Deng Fei created a Google map image of over 100 cancer cities in China, illustrating how the cities are all concentrated on the East of China, all fairly near to the coast (as pictured below). However, since then the number of cancer cities has drastically increased. Non-Governmental Organisations and Chinese academics estimate that there are now approximately 459 cancer cities in china (Kaiman, 2013). Residents of cancer villages are certain that before factories were built there was no cancer. However, it is very difficult to find an actual link between a certain chemical being released from certain factories that is entering the water system and is causing a certain type of cancer. Therefore, it may take years before pure evidence is found that a certain chemical from industrial wastewater is causing cancer. Officials say that it is hard to tell whether it is chemicals from factories that are causing cancer because the workers do not have an unusually high rate of disease. Lee Liu of the university of Central Missouri says “China appears to have produced more cancer clusters in a few decades than the rest of the world ever had” (Watts, 2010).

On the other hand, some experts insist that Chinese farms cause more pollution than factories. China has become the world’s largest consumer of pesticides following increasing industrialisation. It now uses approximately 1.67 million tonnes of pesticides annually (Sun, 2012). The long-term application of pesticides has caused a contamination of ground water, surface water, farm products and soil (Sun, 2012). The contaminated water is often used to irrigate crops. Therefore the crops can also become contaminated, and some farmers themselves admit that they would not eat the crops they are selling because of how contaminated they could be. For this reason, many farms are becoming withdrawn to stop contaminated food from being sold. This could further increase the food insecurity which is already a huge problem in China.

The Chinese government are considering various different rules and alternatives to help improve the water quality and provide more safe water for its large population. The government of Beijing has promised to improve sewage disposal which will minimise the amount of sewage that is being dumped in fresh water systems. One of the alternatives being considered is the desalination of salt water. However, there are a few set backs of this idea including the fact that desalination requires a large amount of energy and is a costly process. It is also argued that desalination will not encourage people to conserve water but will do the opposite as people will assume that there is more water available than there was before. Furthermore, farmers will be educated and trained on how to use fertilisers properly in order to reduce the amount of contaminated agricultural runoff.


Word Count: 987


C, Elizabeth. (2013) ‘China’s Water Pollution Crisis‘. The Diplomat [Online] 22/01. Available at [Accessed 16/03/14].

Iberlekamp. (2013) ‘China to Act on Massive Contamination of Water Supply‘. EcoNews [Online] 08/07. Available at [Accessed 16/03/14].

Li, J. (2013) ‘China gears up to tackle tainted water’ Nature [Online] 499, (1) 14-15. Available at [Accessed 16/03/14]

World Health Organisation (2014) Arsenic [Online] Available at [Accessed 16/03/14]

Mohamed, H. (2013) ‘Millions face arsenic contamination risk in China, study finds‘. The Guardian [Online] 22/08. Available at [Accessed 16/03/14].

McKenzie, D. (2013) ‘In China, ‘cancer villages’ a reality of life‘. CNN [Online] 29/05. Available at [Accessed 16/03/14].


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