Date: Sun, 30 Nov 97 13:09:37 CST
From: Louis Proyect <email@example.com>
Subject: Poisoned Lands: Across Asia, Pollution Disaster (1/2)
Across Asia, a Pollution Disaster Hovers
By Nicholas D. Kristof, The New York Times
28 November 1997
BADUI, China -- This little village is hauntingly beautiful, a patchwork of
mud-brick shacks framed by the vastness of the Yellow River on one side and
rugged gray mountains on the other. But as peasants shuffle along the ocher
paths, their eyes following their children and aching at the sight, the
hamlet suddenly seems chilly, frightening and grotesque.
One-third of the peasants in this hamlet in Gansu Province in western China
are mentally retarded or seriously ill. Most people die in middle age, the
women report unending miscarriages and stillbirths, many of the children
are trapped in toddler-size bodies that they never grow out of, and even
the goats totter and stagger into trees as they go blind and insane.
In the entrance to one house stood a boy named Wei Haiyun, only 29 inches
tall -- the height that an average American baby boy reaches at 12 months,
but Haiyun is 8 years old. Haiyun, who is mentally retarded as well,
casually urinated on the floor and then played with his fingers in the
puddle, as his mother watched and bit her lip and admitted that the only
word he ever utters is "Ma."
The peasants believe that the horrors of Badui village are the result of
polluted water discharged by the state-run Liujiaxia Fertilizer Factory
next door. The factory, which sometimes denies the accusations and mostly
ignores them, dumps its wastes into the Yellow River just upstream from
where the villagers draw their drinking water.
The pain here in Badui is emblematic of the growing environmental
catastrophe all across Asia. The cost of Asia's "economic miracle" is a
rising tide of pollution that is proving a burden not just for Asia but for
the entire earth.
Already, Asia has what many experts consider the dirtiest water in the
world, the filthiest air, the most worrisome overfishing, and the
fastest-disappearing coral reefs. One study by the United Nations suggested
that 13 of the 15 cities with the worst air pollution in the world are in
"The worst pollution in the world is unequivocally in Asia," said Daniel C.
Esty, director of the Center for Environmental Law and Policy at Yale
University and co-author of a new book on Asia-Pacific environmental
issues. "The statistics about China are stunning, and right behind those
Chinese cities stand almost every other major city of Asia: Bangkok,
Manila, Jakarta are all right up there among the top polluted cities of the
When delegates from the United States and more than 150 other countries
gather in Kyoto, Japan, beginning Dec. 1 for a conference on global
warming, one of the fundamental underlying challenges will be how to
accommodate the economic rise of Asia. Aside from the United States, China
is already the biggest source of the greenhouse gases linked to global
warming, and -- perhaps more worrying for the long run -- the two
fastest-growing sources of these emissions are China and India.
More than 1.56 million Asians die each year from the effects of air
pollution alone, not counting 500,000 more who die each year from dirty
water and bad sanitation, according to estimates published recently by the
World Health Organization and the World Bank. Another new study, also from
the World Bank but using different assumptions, calculates that 2.03
million people die annually in China alone from the effects of water and
All these figures represent statistical stabs in the dark, so all the
numbers in this article may well be incorrect. But whatever the precise
figures, it appears that considerably more people die each year from
pollution in Asia than died in the Indochina wars centered on Vietnam
(about 1.4 million, from the 1950s through the 1970s).
Industrialization vastly magnifies the impact that humans have on nature,
and so for the last two centuries it has been the transformation of America
and Europe that has had the most dramatic consequences for the planet
Earth. But many experts believe that in the coming decades, it is the
industrialization of Asia that will pose fundamental new stresses for the
ecosystem. Not only does Asia have 60 percent of the world's population, 12
times as much as North America's, but Asia's industrialization is also
taking place at triple the pace of the industrial revolution in the West.
"Asia's potential effects on global warming are certainly going to be much
larger than in the past, and its potential effects on other aspects of the
environment, and particularly its own environment, are likely to be greater
as well," said Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Harvard Institute for
International Development and co-author of a major study on Asia's
development. "And what that really means is that Asia has got to be a lot
smarter than it has been in environmental management."
THE AIR: Two Bangkok Girls Gasp for Breath
The paradox is that Asians are not fleeing the filth but embracing it. From
India to China, Asians vote with their feet -- moving from rural areas with
relatively clean air to the squalid mega-cities that are among the
filthiest places on earth.
To an American, the endless Howrah slums in Calcutta, India, or the
shantytowns outside Jakarta, Indonesia, seem hellish intersections of
gritty air and contaminated water. But to many rural Indians or
Indonesians, the slums sing of opportunity, of jobs, of schools, of hope to
break out of subsistence poverty.
So peasants take a calculated risk, accepting that their children may die
of respiratory infections or diarrhea in exchange for the chance that they
may become educated and rich. It is a dangerous gamble but not necessarily
a foolish one, and for many people it pays off.
Partly as a result of such risk-taking, most Asians are living longer and
better than ever, and others are choking to death.
The stakes in this terrible gamble are evident in the sparkling black eyes
of Kittiya Soisingh, a 14-month-old girl who lives in Bangkok. Her parents
moved to a Bangkok slum to get a better life, and as a result Kittiya may
lose hers altogether.
Kittiya lives in a dark hovel beside an elevated highway, cars and trucks
spewing out black exhaust beside her and above her, and so the air is dense
with grit. She almost died recently after a respiratory infection and spent
a month in a hospital, but now she is out again, lounging on a table on the
cracked sidewalk outside her home, watching as the cars and trucks whiz by,
waiting to be rushed to the hospital the next time.
"I'm always afraid," fretted her mother, Vilgi Ratchamphu, 20, as she
played with the girl on the street. "I'm always afraid that she'll just
The problem for Kittiya is the particles in the air. In Bangkok and most
Asian cities, these particles total more than the danger level of 100
micrograms per cubic meter. Among the worst cities on record are Taiyuan,
China, and Delhi, India, each with more than 500 micrograms. Even worse is
the "indoor air pollution" caused by cooking or heating with coal
briquettes; indoor particles in China have been measured at 11,000
These particles can trigger asthma and respiratory infections in children
like Kittiya, and although such infections are rarely thought of as deadly
in the West, they are the third leading cause of death in the world today,
after heart disease and cancer. Moreover, cancer and heart disease tend to
kill the elderly, so statisticians say acute respiratory infections cause
more "years of life lost" than any other ailment in the world today.
Particles are also associated with higher rates of lung cancer, of heart
attacks and especially of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a fancy
way of describing what happens when particles clog up the lungs so that
people cannot breathe. This is the leading cause of death in China and
kills Chinese at five times the rate in the United States.
To be sure, it is not just the particles that kill children, but also
Across town from Kittiya's slum, at one of the best nursery schools in
Bangkok, 13-month-old Alisa Srirat also suffers from asthma and sensitivity
to respiratory infections. A vivacious little girl with chipmunk cheeks,
Alisa was born in England, where her father was studying at a university,
and she began gasping for breath almost immediately after moving to
Thailand and encountering Bangkok's air.
The girl's father, Wichai Srirat, a 33-year-old university lecturer, was
able to afford good medical advice and he ended up buying an air filter for
his car to shield his daughter from air particles on the roads. That has
largely resolved the crisis.
Srirat smiled as he watched his daughter play on a jungle gym at the
nursery school, and he mused, "She's so much better now."
For poorer parents like Kittiya's, stuck in the dirtiest neighborhoods and
limited to third-rate medical care, if any, the deadliness of urban air in
Asia creates an excruciating dilemma.
"She can be treated, but she can't be cured, and the doctor says we should
leave this area, " Kittiya's mother noted sadly. "If we stay, she'll never
get over this. Her lungs won't be able to take it. But we have no place to
That is not exactly true, for the family could go back to the village that
it left only a year ago. But a Bangkok slum, despite the bedraggled rats
that amble along the gutters, still offers better schools, clinics and jobs
than the countryside.
So Kittiya's parents are not being irrational in risking her life. She may
die, but she may also be the first in her family to break out of a cycle of
subsistence poverty. It is a gamble that leaves her mother breathless with
fear, but one that she still accepts.
THE WATER: Lead and Bacteria Foul Asia's Rivers
One of the greatest scientific mistakes of the 20th century was the
decision to add lead to gasoline to improve performance. The lead in the
air from car exhaust maims children intellectually, permanently impairing
their brain development.
In Chinese cities like Shanghai, the roads are clogged with new cars that
are one of the most dazzling signs of China's economic triumph. But various
studies have found that at least 65 percent of Shanghai children have lead
levels higher than the point considered dangerous to mental development.
The retardation is permanent, and half a century from now, most of these
people will still be living out their lives, the flotsam of Asia's
Most of the lead comes from auto exhaust and hangs in the air, but because
of factory discharges, Asia's rivers also average 20 times more lead than
the rivers in the industrialized world.
Asia's water is almost as deadly as the air, for hundreds of thousands of
people die from drinking polluted water, particularly in places like India,
where the rivers sometimes function simultaneously as water sources and
sewage systems. The average Asian river has 50 times more bacteria from
human feces than World Health Organization guidelines allow.
Perhaps the worst slum in the world is in on the edge of Phnom Penh,
Cambodia, on a muddy slope leading to the Bassac River. As one strolls
along the wooden planks that serve as sidewalks over the stinking mud and
excrement, making conversation with exhausted women trying to prepare
dinner and look after their brood of naked children, nearly every mother
acknowledges having lost a child or two over the years.
It is easy to see why. The tens of thousands of people who live in the slum
drink the river water, which is polluted with industrial effluents and also
functions as the toilet for the entire community.
There are countless other environmental challenges in Asia, like
deforestation -- the continent is losing 1 percent of its forests each year
-- and the loss of rare species of animals, particularly in countries like
Indonesia that are treasures of biodiversity.
But those problems seem a bit unreal to many workers and peasants; the
giant panda may become extinct, but every year tens of thousands of Chinese
children die from pollution for every panda that is poached.
THE COMPLEXITIES: Unclear Causation Vs. Clear Prosperity
The study of pollution is so invested with the language of science, with
everything measured in micrograms or milliliters, that it all sometimes
seems tidy and precise. But in fact, one of the fundamental challenges is
that at ground level in Asia, there are enormous uncertainties about how to
assess the dangers, and these unknowns make regulation all the more
In Badui and its surrounding villages in China, just downstream from the
fertilizer factory, the precise reason for the health problems remains as
murky as the factory's effluent. The only thing that is entirely clear is
that something is dreadfully wrong.
In the hamlet of Qidui, which is three miles from Badui and also relies
mostly on river water with factory waste, there are about 13 births a year,
estimates the village leader, Li Genchen. Of these, he said, eight are
stillbirths or children who die in infancy, and a couple more survive but
with tiny bodies. Only about three of the births lead to normal children,
As for adults, he said, most die in their 40s.
Circumstantial evidence is clear: The problems in Qidui and Badui began
around the time when the factory started operations in 1971, and they went
away in a nearby village that got piped water in 1989. Factory officials
acknowledged that they have dumped dangerous chemicals, including arsenic,
into the water, although they say they stopped releasing arsenic in 1978.
"Water pollution has been a serious problem, and local villagers have been
making trouble over this issue," said Fu Youai, an official in the local
environmental protection bureau. "The pollution is too high and has gone
way over the levels set by the state, and it's harmful to human beings.
"Every year, we order the factory to correct the problems," Fu added. "But
because of budget constraints, the factory hasn't been able to do so."
Tests of the water conducted on samples carried out to Japan show the
presence of ammonia, nitrites and trace metals. The tests also showed
arsenic in levels that exceed safety standards, but not by a large margin,
and in any case these would not normally produce precisely the symptoms
seen in these villages.
Doctors and chemists consulted in Japan and in the United States noted that
a single sample is often not reliable, because chemicals can be released
irregularly. They added that the causation of health problems can be
Something in the effluent might build up in fish, they said. Or some
chemical in the effluent might act in combination with a mineral deficiency
in the peasants, and they suggested that identifying the problem might take
years of research.
Such complexities are common, for in Japan's most famous pollution case it
took years to prove that inorganic mercury used by a factory in Minamata
was turning into a highly toxic substance called methyl mercury. The methyl
mercury then accumulated in fish and caused birth defects in babies born to
women who ate the fish.
Yet for all the mystery about the ailments of Badui, there is one
overwhelming practical certainty in Badui that also has an echo all across
Asia: The polluting factory is crucial to the regional economy. The factory
employs 3,000 workers and annually produces 160,000 tons of urea
fertilizer, which in turn improves the diet and raises the living standards
of millions of peasants in Gansu Province.
If the factory was forced to close, the increased local poverty would
almost certainly lead to more people dying of mundane diseases and fewer
children being able to afford to go to school. So officials at the factory,
which is only marginally profitable and is already fighting to stay in
business, are not at all sympathetic to the peasants and dismiss them as
troublemakers grasping for compensation payments.
"The villagers are lazy and unreasonable," scoffed Zeng Qingang, a factory
director. "They say, 'We should get rich by living off the factory.' "
Moreover, even some of the villagers are wary of thorough investigations
that might harm their own livelihood -- like raising fish in ponds full of
the tainted water. There are several of these fish farms, and although the
villagers say the pollution kills up to half the fish, they sell the
surviving fish on the market in the nearby city of Lanzhou.
"The fish taste different from the fish raised in cleaner water,"
acknowledged Cui Tengxiong, a local fish farmer. "I'm a bit afraid that
they'll test the fish and then tell us not to sell them."
The heartbreak here in Badui and across Asia is so numbing that one
sometimes forgets that the pollution is only half of the seesaw, and that
the other half -- economic development -- is even more stunning.
Industrialization may be poisoning hundreds of thousands of people each
year, but it is also resulting in new hospitals and schools that are saving
even more lives.
Even in Badui, the peasants acknowledge that for all their difficulties
with death and disease, their lives have improved dramatically. As recently
as the great famine of 1959-61, many starved to death in Badui.
So some of the peasants, even as they sorrowfully watch their retarded
children, bear the hardships that they attribute to pollution remarkably
well. They suffer tragedies but keep them in a kind of perspective.
"My husband's stomach is sick, so he can't do much," Qi Chunnu, a stooped
farm wife with downcast eyes, said tiredly as she stood in the entrance to
her home in Badui. "My eldest child is mentally retarded. My second child
is deaf and can't speak right."
And then she beamed: "But my third child is OK."
Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company