Cancer villages in China: the high price of economic growth

October 1, 2009 by  
Filed under CANCER

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water_pollution_and_dead_fishChina has the fastest growing economy in world today. But as we’ve seen in many ways, this seemingly unstoppable economic growth comes with a price, from tainted drugs and milk to environmental problems.

And now it’s th health of the population that is affected, according to this special report by Reuters. In the province of Guangdong in the southern part of the country, the incidence of cancer is several times higher than in the general population. And it is not the common cancers that are to be seen nor the older generation who suffers. It is the relatively rare cancers that occur and it is the young who has htem. Welcome to China’s cancer villages.

In 2006, death rates from cancer increased by 19% in cities and 23% in rural areas compared to the previous year. No current figures are available but is suspected to have increased even more. What is troubling is that people dying from cancer are in their 30s and 40s. The most common forms of cancer, which account for 85% of cancer incidence in China are cancer of the digestive tract specifically, cancers of

  • Stomach
  • Liver
  • Kidney
  • Colon

And this points to one thing – exposure to carcinogens that are ingested by the people. And one doesn’t have to look that far. The rivers and other bodies of water in that area are a cocktail of pollutants that comes from factories and mines. These environmental pollutants get into the ground water system, into the drinking water, and even into the very plants such as rice that the people are eating. In a recent rough survey, the following sheavy metals have been found in high levels:

  • Cadmium
  • Lead
  • Zinc
  • Indium

That’s just the metals. For sure, more deadly contaminants can be found if one looks more closely. Except that no one does.

The heavy metals alone are deadly enough. They are carcinogenic and they accumulate in the environment through the process of bioaccumulation, e.g. they accumulate in fish, other aquatic animals and plants so that their concentrations in these creatures that are part of the food chain are several times higher than in the water where they come from. The fish dies but the plants usually don’t. The next thing on the menu is cadmium-flavored fried rice.

According to a World Bank study in 2007, more than 460,000 Chinese die prematurely due to air and water pollution. The air pollution problem is China is well-known mainly from the publicity of the 2008 Olympics. Nobody seems to pay attention about the water pollution. Until now.

The cost of cancer treatment in China has reached almost $14.6 billion, which is supposedly 20% of the country’s medical expenditure. Unfortunately, this only accounts for those who can afford treatment at all. Despite its social origins, China does not have a nationalized health system. Only the well off and those who live in the cities get access to cancer treatment. Those in rural areas have to suffer in silence. Because remote and faraway they may be, they still cannot escape the pollution and the high price of economic growth.

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