Updated: January 29, 2013 10:02 PM GMT
China is choking on its own air.
On Tuesday, the government issued a warning to residents in Beijing that harmful particulate matter in the air had reached a severe level and advised them to remain indoors.
Pollution in cities across the country has made headlines for weeks – as have studies of the deterioration of air quality because of industrial pollution, which has pushed the number of “severe warning” days to between 30 and 50 percent.
In a recent study, Guangdong-based meteorologist Wu Dui warned of an outbreak of lung cancer over the next decade and added that smog has now replaced smoking as the major cause of the disease.
The killer in China’s air is the PM 2.5 particulate, which contains sulfur compounds, nitrogen oxides and heavy metals – all of which pose severe health risks.
Local media reported that an inaugural Yearbook of Oncology in China published earlier this month has found that one in every 312 people in eastern Zhejiang province suffers from cancer.
In an online survey conducted by Zhejiang-based Qingnian Shibao (Youth Daily), more than 90 percent of about 40,000 respondents said they believe deterioration of the environment has led to high rates of cancer in the province.
I am a native of Zhejiang’s Wenzhou city, whose mountains and rivers once provided a beautiful backdrop for its residents.
But after industrialization opened the city up in the 1980s, the rivers that fed generations of my ancestors turned yellow and foul with pollution.
Today environmental degradation in the province has worsened. The industrial zone sits adjacent to residential areas, and one can see sewage and polluted air discharging from the factories, from the growing number of private automobiles, from burning garbage and from the dust from construction sites.
This is the epitome of hubris in a developing country.
The achievements of the past 30 years of reform in the country are killing the proverbial goose and its golden eggs.
Those who first became prosperous in industry grabbed 80 percent of the wealth and immigrated to other countries, leaving the poor with a badly damaged environment that poses grave health risks.
The only positive development is that public awareness of the need to protect the environment has increased.
Massive protests took place last year in various provinces against the establishment of factories that emit colorless toxic para-Xylene (a benzene-based hydrocarbon), against the construction of a paper factory that discharged waste into the ocean and against an LCD television factory that emitted polluted air, water and toxic residues.
Environmental departments in the government have in the past turned a blind eye to pollution and done little beyond issuing fines or accepting bribes from “offenders.”
These departments, like most government bureaucracies, are hotbeds of corruption – making this injustice its own form of toxic haze.
We can only breathe in the pollutants, both literal and figurative, and watch as protesters get sent to labor camps or branded as mentally unstable.
The country has high expectations of its newly appointed leaders to provide a greater sense of security. But the bureaucratic structures themselves are a part of the problem.
And if nothing is done to reform them, they will remain a cancer eating away at the foundations of the nation and as deadly as the gritty air that shrouds the country.
Shi Feng is a Catholic commentator from mainland China
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