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Heavy metal pollution in China

posted Feb 24, 2011 15:17:13 by gabe
In the past few days, there has been an increasing discussion of the effects heavy metal pollution is having on China's environment and people's health and well-being. An article in Century Weekly Magazine claims up to 10% of China's rice crop (meaning nearly 20 million tonnes of grain)may be contaminated with heavy metals such as cadmium.

We think this is a very serious issue, because unlike prior food safety issues such as the tragic melamine scandal, the heavy metal problem reflects a fundamental reality of China's industrial development structure and will be much tougher to repair. Challenges will come from the politics of industrial restructuring, as well as the fact that heavy metal pollution can take years to remove from the environment. If metals pollution forces farmers to abandon certain croplands, the effects on food security in China and global grain prices could be significant.

An in-depth report on the subject by the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs can be found at: We are curious to hear what readers have to say on this vital issue.
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1 reply
Isaac Leung said Apr 09, 2011 23:03:54
My father told me a few years ago that going by rail from Beijing to Hong Kong, he could see in parts that the earth looked blue, he imagined because of heavy metal pollution.

I don't know what the ratio is between electronics/coal ash/mining/other industries in terms of the provenance of heavy metals.

An environmentalist in China told me in 2008 that the problem was increasingly of industrial pollution of freshwater resources. Surveys mentioned in recent press coverage e.g. of rice in Guangdong, Jiangxi were also conducted in 2008.

However, central government 'management' was only 'strengthened' in 2009, suggesting a slow-moving response because of the decentralised nature of the problem, unclear lines of responsibility, and the sensitive nature of the issue with multiple economic and social implications.

I assume the fact that the issue is being discussed openly across so different forums and in both Chinese and English-language forums is because it has been given high priority by the central government. In turn this suggests that the situation is serious because it impacts significantly on freshwater resources.

The problem may be manageable, and it would be worth knowing what concentrations of heavy metals were like in the industrial US 100 years ago. However, output of heavy metal pollutants in mass terms then must surely have been smaller. The comparison with the US today with coal ash may also be illuminating if not comforting.

Moreover, even if heavy metal pollution in the national diet were perfectly manageable with low-level medical intervention such as dietary chelation, this would be politically frightening.

I hope other readers have more concrete and technically-referenced contributions.
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