Thursday, July 26, 2007
Chinese river runs red with rust
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 Correspondent

Editor's note: For more coverage of environmental issues, please check out Planet in Peril: A CNN Worldwide Investigation.
Posted By CNN: 2:29 PM ET
  17 Comments
Reading stories like this remind me that I have nothing to complain about! We have it very easy!
Posted By Nicki, Saskatoon, Canada : 2:54 PM ET
Dr. Gupta,

This is a heart breaking story, where you wish a follow-up could be done in a few years to see if things get any better. Gosh, what an up hill battle this poor woman faces. When has any private company or government agency in our country stepped forward on their own volition to admit they did something wrong that injured or maimed or killed anyone? Nothing is ever admitted without a lawsuit or a threat of financial extinction. If that happens here in a democracy, what recourse or chance do these Chinese villagers have?

What will have to happen is that food exports will need to be affected. Something grown in the area and watered with this red poison is shipped to the US and let's hope an inspection catches the toxic contamination. Everyone is thrown in a tizzy and China promises to clean their act up. If the bottom line is affected, something will happen. Be careful, Dr. Gupta. Do not go in the water and watch out for mosquito bites.
Posted By Charlotte D, Stockon CA : 3:36 PM ET
It's important to note that such activism on behalf of the environment is not without precedent. In this precedence, there is hope to be derived; a journalist CAN be victorious in the PRC even in the face of nationalized industry and rampant corporatism of special interests.

The prime example is the influential Dai Qing. She was once a die-hard patriot under Mao during his Great Cultural Revolution, yet today stands in strong opposition to the Three Gorges Dam, driven by her conviction that it would cause irreparable damage to the Yangzi river and the areas of South China through which it flows.

Dai Qing is influential today, not just in China but abroad. Despite punishment (including imprisonment following Tian'anmen Square in 1989), she remains in Beijing to advocate for environmental issues.

Works such as The River Dragon Has Come! show that this battle is not an uphill battle, albeit, a gradual process aided by both heroes and non-governmental organizations.
Posted By Jon : 5:18 PM ET
Dear Dr. Sanjay Gupta,

I watched the segment about the polluted Hengshui river last night and it is incredible to experience how the farmers are not allowed to talk to the CNN news people. I seemed as if they were silenced by the Chinese Mafia.
Posted By Ratna, New York, NY : 5:32 PM ET
Charlotte is correct. Nothing will happen until the 'bottom line' is negatively affected. It is a shame that money continues to trump the livelihoods of so many people. I strongly urge CNN to continue to expose these horrific nightmares. Accurately reported information from the news media is the only way we can be an informed democracy.
Posted By Jeremy, Salyer CA : 5:41 PM ET
How effective is boiling the water for the residents of the village until something on a macroscale is accomplished?

It's astounding that the water is literally red from metal oxides and the toxicity levels are unbelievable. Kudos to Xing Jing and I hope something changes.
Posted By Aruna, Minneapolis, MN : 5:49 PM ET
This story is just plain awful. The Chinese government acts like their citizens are as disposable as toilet paper. Nobody, anywhere, should have to live this way! Criminals in the United States drink better water than this woman's. She is in my thoughts and prayers.
Posted By Lauren Rogers, Wheeling, WV : 7:46 PM ET
Dr.Gupta,

You have provided us with very interesting reports on your journey to China.
It is important to give a voice to those who don't have one,or should I say,are not allowed to have one.
I hope this woman continue on her journey to seek justice. This is not about money,it's about health and quality of life.
Water is a big problem with many countries and it is such an important ressource.
Here,in my beautiful country that I love so much,Canada,we are ranked 3rd in the world for having the biggest reserve of drinkable water. We have 20% of the world reserve.
But when I see people using it like there is no tomorrow,it infuriates me.Especially those who wash their driveways. Hello!!cement doesn't grow!!! Take a broom,do something! Oh,right,you might strain a muscle!
Or when companies are polluting our waters,I'm always telling myself: "Don't they know that we are lucky to have so much because so many countries are in dyer need of water? Don't they know that it won't run forever?"
At the end of the day,I will say it until I'm blue in the face. WE are responsible for what becomes of our planet now and in the future. We can't sit around and wait for governments to make those decisions. There is too much money involved for them. So,it is money vs. human beings. Which one do we value more?

Joanne R.
Laval Quebec
Posted By Joanne R. Laval Quebec : 7:47 PM ET
China is where the U.S. was at the beginning of the 20th century through the 1950's. However, we must be vigilant that the [polluting] industries don't succeed in overturning all the environmental safeguards that have since been put into place through corporate lobbying (AKA Bush's base).
Posted By Oscar A., Alhambra, CA : 8:08 PM ET
Hi Sanjay,

What a frightening situation! My first reaction was an overwhelming wish to get this woman and her daughter to a safer place. But it would be so much better to find a way to make life safer for everyone there. Then I remembered hearing that there are safe drinking water projects sponsered by UNICEF and companies like Brita and Pur. Ultimately, the river needs to be made clean again, but perhaps filtration could help in the short term. Is there anything like that being contemplated for the people in this village?
Posted By Nancy, Phoenix AZ : 8:31 PM ET
So little water for so many people - how many other Chinese water sources are as polluted as this one? What does the shortage of drinkable water look like country-wide?

Such a tragedy to lose one's spouse to something contracted from drinking water - something we all take for granted here in the US. And how frightening it must be to know that is the only source of water for herself and her child.

Thank you for writing about this - it makes me realize how very fortunate I am in my life and how much the "little" things we take for granted make a difference.
Posted By Suzanne Pratt, Knoxville TN : 8:35 PM ET
Hi Dr. Sanjay,

Zhu Chuuyun's situation is so tragic; it makes me feel horrible on many levels. Thanks to you and CNN for exposing such important issues.

One thing that makes me feel badly about situations such as this is that we tend to get upset when we have to stand in line to long at Starbuck's and these people do not even have safe water - surely puts things into perspective and we are in need of that in this country.

Thankfully you are exposing these issues for what they are. There are no other news organizations that air this sort of piece and for that you all are to be commended. Many of us appreciate your time and hard work to bring these issues to light.

Keep up the good work and safe travels to you. You guys are making a difference, truly.
Posted By Pati McMillan, Camp Hill, PA : 9:26 PM ET
Dr. Gupta/AC360:
Let's go back around 75 years ago in the United States. During the Industrial Revolution of the 1930's, pollution, not unlike what Zhu Chuuyan is facing, invaded American waterways from steel mills, factories, power plants and railroads, etc. In addition, typhoid fever and other diseases appeared due to unsanitary facilities dumping raw sewage into the waterways.

I know there is not a simple answer but China is facing the "negative aspects" of an industrial revolution. But hopefully, China can learn from the US and Europe on how to avoid the mistakes of our industrial metamorphosis.

In the meantime, who hears the cries of those who are dying from these industrial mistakes? In a non-democratic society, where do citizens find a voice to protest the changes of their environment?

I hope Xing Jing, the environmental lawyer, aids in the groundbreaking effort to change the laws of PRC. I do surmise that she may also be seen as a revolutionary and may be seen as a "thorn in the side" to those who manage PRC's power and flow of the money in the mining industry.

Thank you Dr Gupta for documenting through "Planet in Peril" one of the first insurrections against pollution in China.
Posted By Sharon D., Indianapolis, IN : 2:27 PM ET
Very sad story, my heart goes out to these people...BUT...what about the wild fires/floods, etc in America????? We have people suffering in this country also....please report about your (I am assuming) country. We need all the help we can get, especially from the media...as the government will not take corrective action without the media bringing our devastating situations to light!
Posted By MoeL, Liverpool NY : 4:03 AM ET
How many more people have to die before the Chinese government becomes concerned? The callous disregard for the lives of its populace is tragic. I don't know how the owners of these mines can sleep at night.
Posted By Barbara, Culver City, CA : 11:03 PM ET
Hey Anderson

The Planet in Peril series is such an eye opener. The reports are informative and you and the team are doing a wonderful job in making people aware with what is happening around the world.

Reminds me that I have nothing to complain about…

Thank-you for keeping them honest

Tracy-Marie
Posted By Tracy-Marie Anderson, N.S. Canada : 11:33 PM ET
Thanks for the investigation on this matter Dr. Gupta. It is alarming that the residents of the village in China have to continue to depend on such a toxic river. One question I have is who else does this impact? Who buys the rice that the farmers in Liangqiao sell? Is it sold to other areas in China, or exported to countries such as U.S?
Posted By Anonymous : 5:12 PM ET
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