Zhu Chuuyun lost her husband to cancer; she says a polluted river caused it.
LIANGQIAO, China -- Deep in the Guangdong province of China, I met a woman I won't soon forget.
Wearing a straw hat and carrying a sickle, Zhu Chuuyun is a farmer, growing rice like many in her village. She has an easy smile, with astonishingly perfect teeth and the beautiful face of a model. Both she and her 9-year-old daughter belong on the cover of magazines. Of course, she is far away from the world of glamour and fashion. Here in Liangqiao, Zhu is simply trying to survive. It isn't easy, and every day she worries about the health of her and her daughter.
She told me it all started when the water in her village turned red. First the red water claimed her crops, and then it stole away her husband. He died an awful death, suffering for more than a year before finally succumbing to cancer. The problem, as she described it to me, is that the Hengshui River, which provides the only water to her village, has become so polluted that it is slowly robbing the entire area of life. The most tragic thing is that she has no choice but to use this water, even though she believes it is killing people. She told me this over quiet tears, sobbing and talking about how much she misses her husband.
Despite the health risks, Zhu says she and her daughter still depend on the river for their sustenance.
For a couple of days, we have been looking around the area where Zhu Chuuyun lives. Many refer to this particular place as a cancer village. In fact, nearly 30 out of the 400 people who call this village home have died of cancer over the last several years. While it is hard to say if this red water is the cause, we have learned a few things. The river is in fact red, allegedly because of the oxidation, or rusting, of heavy metals that are released during the mining process at Dabaoshan, a mine through which the river runs 60 kilometers away. That same mining process also results in the deposition of heavy metals such as lead, arsenic, zinc and cadmium into the water at staggeringly high levels, and we do know those chemicals can cause cancer. In fact, according to scientists, Hengshui River is now a grade five out of five, meaning it is too toxic to touch, let alone irrigate crops or drink.
Xing Jing, an environmental lawyer, is determined to sue the mining company. This young Chinese woman, who reminds me of Erin Brockovich, has been steadily collecting evidence to TRY to make the case on behalf of this cancer village. But given that the country of China runs the mining company, her challenge is a formidable one. Still, Xing Jing wants to do it for people like Zhu Chuuyun, Zhu's daughter and the husband and father they'll never see again.
-- By Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN Chief Medical CorrespondentEditor's note: For more coverage of environmental issues, please check out Planet in Peril: A CNN Worldwide Investigation.