Fear factor: China's toxic overload

"Every day I ask myself, what is safe to eat? The pork is laced with clenbuterol; the beef and lamb contain other toxic additives; and we don't dare drink the milk."

For most Chinese, living in a healthy manner is not just common sense but a form of piety. If you fall sick, it is widely assumed it's because you didn't really take care of yourself.

But as the lament above -- posted on micro-blogging site Sina Weibo under the pseudonym 'White clouds, Calm wind' -- suggests, this ancient precept did not anticipate the advent of melamine, cadmium, pesticides, lead, mercury, sulphur dioxide, micro-particles and dozens of other potentially harmful chemicals that have worked their way into China's food chain, water supply and atmosphere.

Nearly three decades of double-digit industrial development greased by corruption and barely constrained by regulatory oversight has produced, as a by-product, unprecedented levels of pollution and an epidemic of toxic foodstuffs -- from baby formula to the grain alcohol favoured at wedding banquets, made and marketed by ruthless entrepreneurs.

Many of the thousands of small-scale public protests across China each year are driven by the visible impact of environmental pollution on people's daily lives, say watchdog groups within and outside the country.

Until recently, such outbursts never garnered attention beyond the immediate zone of impact. But the Internet, and especially homegrown micro-blogging sites with some 600 million accounts, means the state can no longer keep such incidents from becoming household knowledge across China.

Dozens of food and beverage scandals resulting in hundreds of deaths have made Chinese consumers wary, apprehensive and finally angry.

From 2007 until 2011, the use of clenbuterol, for example, flourished in factory pig farms across the country. A dangerous anabolic steroid, the chemical is also abused by athletes to build muscle mass. In animal husbandry, it increases the ratio of more expensive lean meat compared to fat.

Nitrogen-based melamine, a compound found in industrial plastics, was widely used in baby formula up until 2008, when the worst food scandal to hit China in years erupted into international news. Six infants died that year from poisoning, and an estimated 300,000 are still suffering health problems, especially kidney dysfunction. Despite the arrest of 21 people -- two of whom were executed -- a similar case emerged two years later in 2010.

White Clouds, Calm Wind's litany of alimentary anxiety also includes a fear of "talc in our tofu (bean curd)," a staple source of protein consumed throughout China.

"And we can't eat fried food either, because who can guarantee that it wasn't cooked in recycled oil taken from the streets?" At the end of last year, more than four dozen people were arrested in one province alone for reselling so-called "gutter oil" scooped up from the drains of restaurants.

"As for flour, it's so unnaturally white that it's frightening," says the blogger.

Tainted food may be the least of China's health hazards -- it is still easier for the government to crack down on unscrupulous merchants than to purify China's water and air. Just this year, there have been two major chemical discharges in life-giving rivers that have sent people scurrying to the supermarket.

In January, multiple factories upstream along a 300-kilometre stretch of the Longjiang from the city of Liujiang were found to be dumping huge amounts of the deadly carcinogen cadmium. Some four million people were affected.

Weeks later, an acid spilled in the Yangtze at Zhejiang, one of the country's wealthiest provinces, provoked a short-lived panic when residents in Zhenjiang city smelled the results in their tap water.

But many consumers will have wondered if the water that disappeared from market shelves is necessarily safer. Only last year, Beijing authorities halted the sale of 31 brands of bottled water that failed safety tests. Many harboured colonies of bacteria that was hundreds -- and in one case 9,000 -- times above threshold standards.

The same goes for ostensibly certified "organic" foods, a sector that has nearly quadrupled in size in as many years as middle-class consumers look for guarantees that what they are eating is free of unsafe levels of pesticides.

Only China's top leaders, provisioned from special farms, can be sure they are eating safely, according to Gao Zhiyong, who worked for a state-run food company and then wrote a book about it.

China's Environmental Protection Ministry said in November that fully a tenth of China's farmland contains dangerous levels of heavy metals due to contaminated water and waste.

"The folks at the State Administration for Radio, Film and Television (which oversees censorship) should be responsible for food safety and those at the State Food and Drug Administration in charge of reviewing movies," quipped another Weibo blogger under the handle 'Refugee'. "That way, Chinese people could eat safe food and see uncut movies."

Last August, thousands of residents in Dalian, an industrial city in China's northeast, took to the streets to protest against the presence and alleged leaks from a factory producing paraxylene, a carcinogen used to make polyester films and fabric.

Even Apple has come under fire. The Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, a Chinese research group, charged recently that some of the high-tech giant's suppliers in China were spewing toxic substances into the water and the air, endangering their workers and neighborhoods.

About the same time, violent protests erupted in the eastern city of Haining, where residents, including the mayor, blamed a rash of leukemia cases on discharges from a nearby solar panel factory, forcing authorities to temporarily shut it down.

Reports of abnormally high rates of cancer near industrial installations have become so common that a new term has entered the vocabulary: "Ai Zheng Cun", or "cancer villages." With unintended irony, the Environment Office in the province of Shandong recently anointed one such locale, Tushan, as a "commune of longevity" despite a rash of cancer that some experts suspect is related to a high concentration of chemical factories, including one that produces the insecticide Profenofos.

The Chinese government has been reluctant to release complete nationwide figures on cancer rates, and even the ones they do may have underestimated the problem, environmentalists say. Rural inhabitants -- heavily exposed to insecticides and herbicides used in agriculture -- are often reluctant to seek hospital care for fear of burdening their families with out-of-pocket medical expenses.

Arguably, the most widespread and health-wrecking form of pollution in China today is neither in the soil nor the water, but in the air. Partly in response to a rising tide of public anger over pollution, the government recently set new air-quality standards, including for the first time particulates of less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter.

In so doing, however, it was forced to acknowledge that the new benchmark immediately puts two-thirds of China's big cities in the red zone. And while in keeping with the World Health Organization's guidelines for lowering pollution levels in developing countries, the new standards are still more than three times higher than the body's recommended threshold.

China's increasingly toxic environment combined with the viral-like spread of news across the country's micro-blogging sites has proven highly combustible. As once-isolated victims realize that the hyper-local threats to their health are in fact duplicated across the country, they have become more emboldened in their criticisms, and more insistent that action be taken.

"We have been living this for decades," wrote one Weibo blogger under the handle of 'Hebo HB'. "We only wish the government would not cheat us."

"Sometimes, I suspect that what we are breathing isn't air, but politics," said another user.

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