rice in bowl

Photo: B.W. Mosley

After reading an article in Marketplace.Org about toxic rice harvested in one of China’s “cancer villages” I made a disconcerting discovery.  The US imports 7% of its rice from a number of countries, one of which happens to be China.  Could there possibly be any connection here?

This particular story started in the 1990s in rural, southern China when a hill of yellow and green, foul-smelling chemical waste from a neighboring factory began to rise beside Farmer Wu Shuliang’s rice paddy. By 2012 the hill contained approximately 300 million (yes, 300 million) pounds of chemical sludge — byproducts of chemicals used in the tanning industry. Whenever it rained, the river and Wu’s rice fields turned bright yellow. His two children bathed in that river, drank from a well with thick yellow sludge at the bottom and the oldest son, Wenyong, worked in the family paddies from an early age.

In his thirteenth year Wenyong started experiencing difficulty in breathing. His chest hurt and he developed a non-stop cough. He was taken to a doctor and, because his parents could neither read nor write, he himself was the first to read his own medical report. The diagnosis: leukemia and thymoma — two types of cancer.

Simultaneously, Greenpeace arrived in Wu’s village to test the river and well waters. They found astronomical levels of Chromium-6, a known carcinogen, 240 times higher than what the U.S. — and even China — allowed in their drinking water.

To pay for Wenyong’s chemotherapy the family sold all their livestock and borrowed heavily. The next year, wiped out financially, they watched him die a painful death. According to Ma Tianjie of Greenpeace, “There are a lot of sad stories of pollution victims all over China.” In Wu’s village alone, Ma found at last 30 other villagers among 500 who had been diagnosed with cancer. Even the government itself has been using the term “cancer villages” to describe a cluster of the country’s villages heavily polluted by industrial waste. For those who have watched the Chinese firewall and PR in action, this open admission is startling — an indication of how serious the situation is.

The government’s openness, however, does not stretch to sharing solid information about the widespread contamination of the country’s food supply — and the land where it’s produced. National soil surveys were declared to be “state secrets’ by the communist party and anyone revealing them earns a fast ticket to prison.

Though the sludge pile was recently removed, the pollution remains on Wu’s land. With no money now and no government assistance, he, along with neighboring farmers, continues to grow rice on his land. Knowing its dangers, however, Wu’s family doesn’t eat a grain of that rice. Instead they sell it to vendors who come from distant provinces to buy it and who in turn sell the toxic rice throughout China.

Who knows where that rice ends up. On which plate? Where? Though perhaps remote, the possibility even exists that some of that rice is exported. And maybe even imported here. Not the most appetizing thought when digging into a steaming dish of moo goo gai pan over rice or paella or chicken and rice or…

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