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China’s ‘cancer villages’

Villagers in southern China attribute recent cancer deaths there to a nearby mine and the contaminated river that runs through their towns.

This river carries reddish brown water from a lake near a heavy metals mine through towns in southern China's Shangba region. The flow ranges from a bright shade of orange to a murky white, and the waters are so viscous that they barely ripple in the breeze.
"All the fish died, even chickens and ducks that drank from the river died. If you put your leg in the water, you'll get rashes and a terrible itch," said He Shuncai, a 34-year-old rice farmer who has lived in Shangba all his life. "Last year alone, six people in our village died from cancer and they were in their 30s and 40s." Bobby Yip / Reuters
A dying plant stands in the contaminated lake near the Dabaoshan mine in the Shangba region. Its waters are poisoned by cadmium, lead, indium, zinc and other heavy metals.
Tests published by a medical lab in July show that the lake and river contain excessive amounts of cadmium, a heavy metal that is a known carcinogen, as well as zinc, which in large quantities can damage the liver and lead to cancer.
The mine is run by the government-owned Guangdong Dabaoshan Mining Co. Ltd. Bobby Yip / Reuters
Yun Yaoshun, 82, lives in the town of Shangba and watched her son, 54, and two granddaughters, just 12 and 18, die of cancer of the kidneys and stomach even though these types of cancers rarely affect children. The World Health Organization has suggested that the high rate of such digestive cancers are due to the ingestion of polluted water.
"It's because of Dabaoshan and the dirty water," said Yun. "The girls were always playing in the river, even our well water is contaminated." Bobby Yip / Reuters
Residents of the Shangba region are trying to be more careful about what water they use. This villager in the town of Liangqiao fills up a barrel with water from an uncontaminated stream.
Few families downstream from the Dabaoshan mine have been left untouched by cancer. The most common cancers are those of the stomach, liver, kidney and colon. Cancer incidence rates are not available, but rights groups say they are far higher than the national average.
Across China, hundreds of towns suffer similar consequences of the country's rapid economic expansion. Death rates from cancer rose 19 percent in cities and 23 percent in rural areas in 2006, compared to 2005, according to official Chinese media, although they did not give exact figures.
The health burden also has an economic price. The cost of cancer treatment has reached almost $14.6 billion a year, accounting for 20 percent of China's medical expenditure, according to Chinese media. Bobby Yip / Reuters
Water spurts from a well near the Dabaoshan mine which, like most in China, has not faced strict environmental controls in recent years.
An estimated 460,000 people die prematurely in China each year due to exposure to air and water pollution, according to a 2007 World Bank study.
Besides mining for coal, China has a large mine industry around heavy metals used to make batteries, computer parts and other electronic devices. Bobby Yip / Reuters
Shangba villager He Kangcai, 60, is among those in the region suffering from stomach cancer.
The residents of what some are calling China's "cancer villages" struggle to pay for medical care, often going into debt to cover pharmaceutical and doctors' bills.
"An official did come to give me our compensation, 20 yuan ($3)," said Liang Xiti, whose husband died of stomach cancer at the age of 46. His medicines alone cost the family 800 yuan a month, she said. Bobby Yip / Reuters
The lake near the Dabaoshan mine is a murky brown. Heavy metals are not just in the water, but also the food chain. Mounds of tailings from the mine are discarded alongside rice fields throughout the region.
"If you test this rice, it will be toxic but we eat it too, otherwise, we will starve," said He, the farmer, as he shoveled freshly milled rice into a sack. "Yes, we sell this rice too." Bobby Yip / Reuters
The river that starts at the lake near Dabaoshan flows through the town of Shangba.
Zhang Jingjing, a lawyer who is helping local residents, said the mine has promised to distribute a few thousand yuan to all villagers every year. Even though the funds will barely cover medical expenses, Zhang says it is an encouraging first step. "This means the mine admits it is polluting the environment," he said. "If it did no wrong, it won't give out this money." Bobby Yip / Reuters