BEIJING -- Faced with growing public anger about a poisonous environment, China's government released a years-long study that shows nearly one-fifth of the country's farmland is contaminated with toxic metals, a stunning indictment of unfettered industrialization under the Communist Party's authoritarian rule.
The report, previously deemed so sensitive it was classified as a state secret, names the heavy metals cadmium, nickel and arsenic as the top contaminants.
It adds to widespread doubts about the safety of China's farm produce and confirms suspicions about the dire state of its soil following more than two decades of explosive industrial growth, the overuse of farm chemicals and minimal environmental protection.
It also points to health risks that, in the case of heavy metals, can take decades to emerge after the first exposure. Already, health advocates have identified several "cancer villages" in China near factories suspected of polluting the environment where they say cancer rates are above the national average.
The soil survey was conducted from 2005 until last year, and showed contamination in 16.1 percent of China's soil overall and 19.4 percent of its arable land, according to a summary released late Thursday by China's Environmental Protection Ministry and its Land and Resources Ministry.
"The overall condition of the Chinese soil allows no optimism," the report said. Some regions suffer serious soil pollution, worrying farm land quality and "prominent problems" with deserted industrial and mining land, it said. Contamination ranged from "slight," which indicated up to twice the safe level, to "severe."
The report's release shows China's authoritarian government responding to growing public anger at pollution with more openness, but only on its own terms and pace. Early last year, Beijing-based lawyer Dong Zhengwei had demanded that the government release the soil findings, but was initially rebuffed by the environment ministry, which cited rules barring release of "state secrets."
That led to criticism from the Chinese public, and even from some arms of the state media. The Communist Party-run People's Daily declared that, "Covering this up only makes people think: We're being lied to."
China's leaders have said they are determined to tackle the country's pollution problem, though the threat to soil has so far been overshadowed by public alarm at smog and water contamination. However, recent scandals of tainted rice and crops have begun to shift attention to soil.