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China vows to curb heavy-metal pollution

Posted on behalf of Jane Qiu

China’s environment ministry unveiled a long-awaited plan last Friday to tackle heavy-metal pollution that plagues the country’s soil, waterways, vegetation and food sources.

With a sum of 75 billion yuan ($11.4 billion) earmarked for the problem, the plan, the first five-year budget plan that has been announced, will focus on five metals – lead, mercury, chronmium, cadmium and arsenic – and aims to reduce their release in key regions by 15% from the 2007 level.

The plan lists 138 key regions in 15 provinces, where the problem is most serious. It also blacklists 4,452 heavy polluters, mostly from the industrial sector, which the ministry will monitor very closely, said the environment minister Zhou Xiansheng in a televised conference.

The first national pollution census, which was published last year, shows that 900 tonnes of the five heavy metals were discharged in 2007 alone. Over 80% of the country’s rivers, lakes and reservoirs, 63% of its coastal waters, and about 20 million hectares of land are contaminated.

Such high levels of heavy-metal pollution are a major public health hazard – and sources of public unrest – with repeated reports of children with high levels of lead in the blood and villagers being killed by long-term exposure to heavy metals.

They also raise widespread concerns for food safety, particularly of rice, the staple food for over 65% of the population – about 845 million people – in China.

In 2002, officials at the agricultural ministry found that over 10% of the rice sold in the country contained higher levels of cadmium than the legal maximum and nearly a third had more lead than what is thought safe to consume.

According to the plan, local governments are responsible for making sure that mitigation measures are in place to reduce heavy-metal discharge. Rather than being judged solely on economic performance, local officials will be assessed also on their credentials in curbing heavy-metal pollution.

The ministry will invest in the research and development of technologies for cleaning up heavy metals already in soil and water. It is also determined to penalise companies that fail to meet the requirements, including heavy fines and shutting them down, said Zhou.


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