The High Price of Industry: Cancer Villages in China

Starting in the 1990s, cancer rates in China began rising at an astounding rate. By 2007, cancer was accounting for one in five deaths in China. Similarly rapid increases in cancer rates are being seen in many other nations that are in the process of industrialising. Once considered a disease of the industrialised world, cancer is a growing problem in many nations that are struggling to gain a foothold in the global economy, as well as nations that are already well positioned, but still rapidly growing, like China.

A lot of news stories like to blame this on the acquisition of ‘Western habits’ and the ‘Western diet,’ or on smoking. These are, after all, convenient and popular targets for blame in the industrialised world as well. Other studies point to increased life expectancy that increases the chance that people will develop cancers simply by nature of living longer.

However, many of these stories ignore a major hidden contributor to rising cancer rates: environmental pollution.

Industrialising countries tend to have extremely high pollution rates. Environmental pollutants like heavy metals in the water have been clearly and substantively linked with cancer in numerous studies. Air, water, and soil pollution have been associated with a wide range of cancers including breast, liver, stomach, and lung cancers. Need evidence of pollution in China? There’s the Asian brown cloud, a proliferation of e-waste in China, and, of course, the pall cast by coal fired power plants, among many other things.

The tendency to attribute rising cancer rates to personal habits is one that places the responsibility for cancer solely on the individual. It’s easy to see why leaning towards ‘habits’ when it comes to attributing cancer rates is appealing, especially for policy makers and corporations, because it dodges the environmental link and any government or corporate-level responsibility. If cancer can be blamed on people, instead of institutions, it eliminates the need to address environmental causes of cancer, like pollutants that sicken people in their own communities, occupational hazards like workplace exposures to chemicals, and pollutants that disseminate and sicken people far from the source.

Regulation of pollution is erratic and sometimes very lax in rapidly industrialising countries, many of which have ‘economic zones’ of some form or another that are specifically designed to attract foreign companies with lax environmental, labour, and tax laws. Historically, people have presented this as some sort of flaw on the part of the populations and policymakers in these nations, implying that people are greedy for the potential profits of industrialisation, or not very knowledgeable about environmental issues, or that they are susceptible to bribery and thus can’t be trusted to make sound policy.

The truth is actually more complicated. Industrialising nations are subjected to immense pressure from industrialised nations to keep their regulations lax and incomplete and to meet demands from multinational companies to create ‘hospitable’ business climates. Many of these industrialised nations are former colonisers, adding another layer to the situation, and many of these corporations take a role in policymaking and governance which might surprise you, like using armed paramilitary forces to silence human rights advocates, Indigenous people, and communities. Many nations with international trade agreements are pressured by corporations that want to cut down on the costs of production by making products in countries with less stringent environmental and labour laws; look at the maquiladoras that line the United States-Mexico border for an example.

We need only look to BP operating in the United States to see how aggressively corporations resist environmental regulations in industrialised nations. In industrialising nations, which are largely regarded as low-hanging fruit for profit, that resistance is magnified, and corporations are much bolder about pressuring nations to refuse to adopt or change environmental regulations and violating those regulations when they are put in place. The same holds true with labour laws; many companies outsource production to nations with less stringent labour regulations to take advantage of the low, low costs of child and slave labour.

China represents a perfect storm. An industrialising nation with environmental regulations that are not keeping pace with pollution and the rise of vast factory towns where companies from all over the world expect to obtain a source of low-cost labour in a lax regulatory environment. Entire villages are sickening and dying as a result of environmental pollution (link via abcsoupspot). Reporting on China’s ‘cancer villages’ is suppressed, and it’s difficult to estimate the full extent of the phenomenon.

What’s happening in China is also happening in communities all over the world. As concerns about pollution rise and regulators tighten up, which they are doing in China, the pollution doesn’t disappear, it just moves. Sources of pollution such as industrial waste dumps and factories don’t just disappear. These things are still ‘needed.’ They simply move to other locations.

Those locations tend to be impoverished communities. Either they are forced on communities that are not given a choice, or they are actively welcomed by communities in dire need of jobs and income. As goes Xinglong, so goes Kettleman City. There is a long and ignominious history of shunting pollution on to poor communities that are the least equipped to deal with it, the least equipped to protest it, and the least likely to have infrastructures in place for early diagnosis and treatment of pollution-related illnesses. Many of these communities also have big minority populations, with environmental racism coming into play when it comes to deciding where polluting industries should be situated.

Environmental pollution is a global human rights issue, not a problem limited to tree huggers. With pollution comes much, much more than loss of biodiversity, extinction of endangered species, destruction of topsoil, and a host of other specifically environmental problems. Death and disease ride with environmental pollution, just as classism and racism perpetuate and determine which communities will be affected by it.