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China: Toxic trails from metal production harms health of poor communities amid soaring global demand for gadgets

“Chinese metal mines feed the global demand for gadgets. They’re also poisoning China’s poorest regions”, 29 December 2019

… Across southern China… a vast metals industry has fed the country’s manufacturing boom and sated global demand for components used in products from smartphone batteries to electric motors to jet airframes.

China’s production of material such as aluminum, copper, lead and zinc, known as base or nonferrous metals, has soared as the country has become the world’s factory floor…

But some of the country’s most isolated, impoverished communities are paying the price.

In Guangxi, a balmy southern region that has some of China’s most concentrated mineral deposits, large tracts of farmland lay wasted by runoff carrying cadmium and lead…

Villagers roll up their sleeves to show deformities caused by ingesting food contaminated by heavy metals. Residents wait daily for shipments of fresh water.

In the past decade, China’s top leaders have steadily tightened regulations on the metals industry, including introducing the country’s first soil pollution law last year.

After an eight-year study that began as a state secret, the Chinese government said in 2014 that 20 percent of the country’s farmland was contaminated and a third of its surface water unfit for human contact. Top officials said last month that they had set aside $4 billion to clean up contaminated soil… yet it’s a fraction of the $1 trillion that some Chinese experts predict is needed.

A review of soil and water data, interviews with environmental researchers, and a 500-mile journey through Guangxi illustrated how the sheer financial cost is only the tip of the challenge facing China…

… metal producers appear to operate with a degree of impunity — and leave a toxic trail — as they transform crude mountain ore into the essential nuggets of modern life. There are zinc slabs for coating steel, copper cathodes for wires and transformers, and grains of nickel matte, a step in making purified nickel used in batteries and other products…

The Qingda No. 2 mine, run by a local mining boss, Chen Xiangsheng, is a case study.

Filings with the Industry and Commerce Bureau show that a government inspection… found that Chen’s mine didn’t obtain approval for an expansion and that its construction blueprints “lacked authenticity.” Chen was fined twice… for “substandard equipment and facilities” and “illegal production.”

Yet his mine kept humming around the clock, employing about 800 locals like Meng…said Meng… “The difference is, private bosses go wherever there is ore. State companies might leave it if it’s dangerous.”…

Researchers from the Guangxi Institute of Occupational Technology and Nanning University sampled dust on road surfaces around Dachang. A study published in June said they found heavy-metal concentrations far above national safety limits: arsenic at 111 times, cadmium at 55 times and lead at 2.45 times.

Heavy-metal levels inside homes were only slightly lower, according to the researchers.

… Wei Chun, a farmer, said more than 20 out of 25 children in his village, Tanghan, tested positive as early as a decade ago for excessive lead levels in their blood…

… National panics have broken out in the past decade after consumers discovered high heavy-metal content in rice grown near smelters…

Local government agencies did not respond to faxed questions and requests for comment…