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Polluted River Creates 'Cancer-stricken' Villages

At least 20 villages along the middle reaches of Shaying River, the largest branch of China's most-heavily polluted Huaihe River, have been plagued by cancer for more than ten years.

According to investigations by Huo Daishan, director of the research center of the Huaihe River environment, cancer patients are increasing in more than 20 villages in Shenqiu County of central China's Henan Province alone.

Huangmengying, a 2,400 population village in the county, has seen 114 deaths caused by cancer in the past 14 years. On September 1 alone, three villagers died of the disease, following five cancer-caused deaths since July 1. Another ten villagers have been diagnosed with cancer.

Wang Linsheng, a local official with Huangmengying, said that more and more people here began to suffer from colonitis, rectum cancer or esophageal cancer since the water in the Shaying River turned dark and odorous in the 1990s.

Kong Heqin, a rectum cancer patient for four years, said that she had been feeling sick ever since she married and moved to Huangmengying ten years ago.  

"I never went to hospital before my marriage," she said." But now, I've borrowed nearly 70,000 yuan (US$8,500) to pay for my disease. I would have committed suicide long ago if someone would have cared for my two children."

Villagers call the 200-meter-long street where Kong lives "cancer street." Six residents died from cancer in recent years; two others currently suffer from the disease.

Although Shenqiu is one of China's most impoverished counties, sales of barreled purified water in the villages have been flourishing. Li Hua, host of a grocer in one of the villages called Mengzhai, sells dozens of barrels each day. 

But Li fails to benefit much from the booming sales.

"It is very hard for the low-income farmers here to afford purified water every day. They often buy water on credit and delay the payment for a long time," he said. 

Purified water means life or death to the 26-year-old Meng Qingkun, who got spondylitis, an inflammation of the vertebrae, in 2002. Doctors told him to move out the village because his disease was caused by the heavy metals in the drinking water. But Meng chose to stay where he is for he has lost ability to work and "spent all his money on purified water."

China has spent more than huge sums of funds in the past ten years in an effort to relieve and prevent severe pollution in the Huaihe River, but little progress has been made.

Liu Jiaqiang, director of the Environmental Protection Bureau with Shenqiu County, said that groundwater of all the 21 towns in Shenqiu County has been polluted by the Shaying River, which receives vast amounts of sewage from the cities in upper reaches.

Thanks to Huo and his fellow staff's unremitting efforts, the regional government undertook an investigation on the water quality and health conditions in Huangmengying in July. The government allocated funds to dig a deep well for the village. 

The official in charge of the investigation said that polluted drinking water rich in manganese and nitrite was the major cause of the frequent occurrence of cancer in the village.

However, the local government of Shenqiu County has never undertaken a comprehensive investigation on the people's health along the Shaying River.

Gu Jianjun, vice-director of the Health Bureau of the county, said that he heard of rumors about the cancer-stricken cases several years ago, and the local government once planned an investigation. But the project was abandoned because of lack of funds, personnel and "support from superior departments."

Besides economic reasons, the local government's real concern is how to account for lack of results achieved by the ten-year-long clean-up of the Huaihe River, said an insider who declined toby named.

"Both the county-level and regional government hesitate to undertake comprehensive investigation in the cancer-stricken villages, because they want to avoid admitting that the efforts in pollution relief have not been paid off," he said. 

(Xinhua News Agency October 1, 2004)

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