Thursday, July 26, 2007
The river runs red
Zhu Chuuyun lost her husband to cancer; she says a polluted river caused it.
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 Chuuyun 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 and her daughter and the husband and father they'll never see again.
This is outrageous! I am aware that much of China lives in less-than-desireable (to put it lightly) conditions, but a situation this drastic should be looked into by the Chinese government. The Hengshui is NOT a small river...which means that Zhu's village cannot possibly be the only one faced with this quandary. As there is no alternative to this water, maybe someone in a high position of authority should send filters and authorize testing to be conducted. I give Zhu and her daughter applause for taking action to build up a case, and I'll keep them in my prayers.
Such a sad story, but why does it matter she looks like a model? Sorry, I guess it's just a pet peeve of mine to see womens' attractiveness mentioned in stories about important issues, like poverty and healthcare crises. I see this often, especially when Americans report on other countries. What motivates a journalist to do that?

Anyways, this is really a tragedy and I hope to hear more about this issue in the future. I am enjoying your daily blogs on your trip to China.
Sounds like the NY Love Canal scandal and all these years later we are still embattled here.
Christine Whitman telling everyone the air was safe to breathe at ground zero sound familiar?
Why don't you report on the US environmental issues instead of pointing a finger elsewhere?
Dear Dr Gupta,
This story makes me sad. China’s economy has grown up at the expense of human health and lives, as well as environment. The factories also make products which are harmful to human, as some surprising facts have been revealed recently. China won’t become a real developed country unless they think of citizen. I think they struggle to improve the country’s image, but before everything Chinese government has to change the society that people cannot talk freely and honestly.
I can't even begin to put down how horrified I am at a river in that state! 5 out of 5? That ANY place on this Earth is "too toxic to touch" is terrible, but it's so much worse that this is such a significant waterway that affects so many people! I won't even ask why the government of China isn't doing anything about this... they don't do anything about anything until they get caught! Then they just execute whoever they deem to be the scapegoat.

My heart bleeds for Zhu, her family, and everyone else who is suffering from this tragedy.
It is admirable that you are investigating the pollution due to resource extraction and the possible links to the high cancer rate in China. I find it abhorrent that since 1993 we desperately tried to get CNN to investigate the same situation in the Appalachian region of the US known as Buchanan County, VA. Our pleas for the media and government agencies to investigate the pollution and cancer link due to gas well development fell on deaf ears. I guess that China rates higher on the news-worthiness than we do, or else the energy companies DO have a stranglehold on the US media and government.
Dr. Gupta, BUY THESE WOMEN WATER - and help the less beauteous females while you're at it! Why should a beautiful woman and her NINE YEAR OLD DAUGHTER "belong on the cover of a magazine"? When you report on men, do you comment on their "astonishingly perfect teeth and beautiful face"?
Dr. Gupta, Boy you keep tripping over it constantly. Even as a narrow minded male I knew you were going to have trouble about the teeth and beauty angle. You also say " While it is hard to say if this red water is the cause, we have learned a few things." How can you say it's debatable if scientists rate this a 5? Very confusing article.
Wow you people are ridiculous. The obvious relevance of the woman's beauty is to show how far seperated they are from American culture. It would be the same if it were a man and a young boy. Something to the effect that you would see the handsome boy on a baseball field.

Maybe you want to pay a little more attention to the subject. Those of you that question his motives in including the mom's beauty, are also asking what the government has done to rectify the situation. In consideration of the fact that the government runs the mine, I suspect very little. So, why don't you stop being so interested in sexest reporting, and put your efforts towards something of substance.
An amazing story and very valuable in knowing China's lack of interest in its people. Why are we still buying so many products from China? We will eventually poison ourselves too. By the way, why is this woman's beauty so astonishing and worthy of mention? Is beauty not expected beyond the limited borders of fashion magazine covers?
dr gupta, i really admire your courageous reporting. i am stunned that one of the posters questions your comment about description of the woman. you area an outstanding writer who constantly brings these issues to light in a very approachable readable way. you are able to prvide a vivid description that really takes me there. thank you!
Approximately 1.1 billion people in the world do not have safe drinking water. For more info, please see:
This must stop! How can we as a nation stand by idly and watch the complete destruction of the environment on China! I am humbled by this story and angry that we have not done more to help. We must stop dealing with China until their government decides that people are more important than profit. This river is red with heavy metals---a symbol of the blood spilled in the name of $$$. We must stop supporting China until they clean up their act!
Also, please let us know how we can help Zhu and her daughter!!!
Your story was interesting. But the small village and large province make it difficult to locate. Online references don't seem to give correct coordinates. The mine and river names don't help much either. Perhaps a distance and direction from the nearest regional city could be included in your initial description. Thanks.
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