500 Sick, Some With Cancer, at Elite Chinese School on Toxic Soil

(Photo: Huffington Post)

(Photo: Huffington Post)

China's central government has announced that it will investigate a report that close to 500 students became sick with illnesses including leukemia and other forms of cancer at a school built near former chemical plants in eastern China.

A report claims that high concentrations of some toxic chemicals may have caused the students' illnesses at Hangzhou Foreign Language School. The Education Ministry will convene its own investigation, and local officials in Jiangsu province, after initially denying any soil quality issues, vowed to re-examine the problem. Now, the ministry "attaches the greatest importance" to the claims and is committed to "safeguarding students' physical and mental wellbeing."

The school, which has more than 2,000 students, is next to a site that was once run by Changlong, a Chinese chemical company that was fined by provincial regulators for environmental violations. The report claims chemical workers dumped and buried chemical waste near the school. One environmental assessment of the soil found levels of soil toxicity to be 95,000 times the national limit.

Heavy metals such as chloroform and chlorobenzene, a chemical linked with brain, liver, and kidney damage, have been found in the soil. The latter substance has been banned throughout the EU and other regions because environmental concerns and potential damage to wildlife.

According to website Quartz, of the 2,451 students, 493, or one in five, have been diagnosed with diseases. By comparison, cancer rates for children and teens in the United States are about 16 per 100,000. The school is one of the best-known secondary schools in the Jiangsu province; its tuition is around $10,000 a year. Despite the concerning reports, the vast majority of students, most of whom intend to study abroad after high school, are still studying on the premises. For its part, the school is telling authorities that it is "under normal operations."

The episode has already started a firestorm on social media. A reporter for the Wall Street Journal, Te-Ping Chen, writes that a social media hashtag #pollutedschool attracted 26 million views in under a day. One angry father said that, "We would smell this stinky duck-egg scent in the air, and we knew it was something about the environment." Some worried parents had already transferred their students to other schools.

Gerry Shih of ABC News reports that the incident underscores the severity of China's groundwater pollution, an issue that is often overshadowed by the country's air quality problems. Last week, the Ministry of Water Resources published findings showing more than 80% of China's shallow groundwater is unfit for human consumption.

It should be noted that there are competing assessments of soil toxicity. A professor from Peking University told reporters that the report causing the controversy was flawed, and the school itself published two reports on its websites citing normal soil quality. The Chinese government, however, is loath to controversy and may have had a hand in tinkering with these more favorable reports, as well as preventing independent investigators from conducting an assessment.

An outraged blogger wrote: "What Chinese Dream? Shoddy vaccines, water contamination, melamine, gutter oil, and the contaminated school? Ordinary people just want to live safe and sound."

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