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Cablegate: South China's Soil in Desperate Need of a Clean Up


DE RUEHGZ #0712/01 3430712
R 080712Z DEC 08




E.O. 12958: N/A
SUBJECT: South China's Soil in Desperate Need of a Clean Up

(U) This document is sensitive but unclassified. Please protect
accordingly. Not for release outside U.S. government channels. Not
for internet publication.

1. (SBU) Thirty years of "pollution first, treatment later" has led
to a severe and growing soil contamination problem - perhaps more
troubling health-wise than air and water pollution - in the Pearl
River Delta (PRD). Excessive concentrations of heavy metals,
pesticides, fertilizers and other carcinogens have been detected in
many soil samples and food products from the region, with some
studies finding excessive heavy metal contamination in about 50% of
vegetable fields in Guangdong. Government control measures have so
far been inadequate with more resources dedicated to air and water
pollution. Programs to move highly polluting industries to special
industrial zones have not included sufficient investment in waste
treatment facilities at the new zones. As U.S. imports of Chinese
agricultural products, especially seafood, grow, soil contamination
in the PRD will be an increasing concern for U.S. consumers. End

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2. (SBU) The Director General of the Guangdong Department of Land
and Resource has said publicly that the problem of soil
contamination is very serious and the effect on products throughout
the food chain, especially from heavy metal contamination, is a
potential threat to human health. In addition to its direct effect
on agricultural products, soil contamination leads to the
deterioration of soil quality, reducing the productivity of farmland
and creating a vicious cycle where more contaminating pesticides and
fertilizers are used. Soil pollution - with heavy metals,
pesticides, nitrate/nitrite and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons
(PAHs) - is probably more harmful to the human health than air
pollution with respect to total cumulative exposure and risk because
food is the major exposure pathway for many of these harmful
contaminants. Exposure is often cumulative without any symptoms at
the beginning. High exposure to these chemicals over time has been
linked to cancers, bone diseases and other health issues, including
child development problems.

Heavy Metals

3. (U) Many studies by local research institutes have shown that
heavy metal soil contamination is very hard if not impossible to
eliminate because the retention time is long, mobility in soil is
slow and the contamination can't be degraded by microbes. Mining
waste, waste water discharge from smelters and other industrial
waste are major contributors. One survey in Guangdong of 179
monitoring sites covering a total area of 84,300 hectares found that
soil pollution in 58.1% of samples exceeded China's standards; the
latter are often much less stringent than U.S. health experts would
recommend. Another investigation of five cities in Guangdong,
accounting for 66,700 hectares of farm land, showed 80% of samples
with heavy metal pollution.

4. (U) Soil contamination leads directly to high levels of heavy
metals in food grown in the PRD. A Sun Yan-Sen University study of
local produce showed that lead levels in 37.5% of leaf vegetables
and 26.3% of root vegetables exceeded Chinese standards. Cadmium
levels exceeded the standards in 18.1% of leaf vegetables and 9.7
percent of root vegetables. One random inspection of vegetables in
a Guangzhou market showed that about 30% exceeded the standard for
lead concentration and 20% exceeded the standard for cadmium. Heavy
metal concentrations in vegetables and other farm produce,
especially rice, in highly polluted areas such as the area around
the Dabaoshan Mine in Guangdong could be more than one thousand
times higher than concentrations reported in U.S. produce by the
U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

5. (U) The Chinese Journal of Food Hygiene in 2007 described a large
study involving 43,976 measurements of various foods and various
pollutants from 2000 to 2005. According to the study, rice in
Guangdong was highly contaminated by cadmium. It found that
consumption of just 0.4 kg of rice per day would result in exposure
to cadmium at 84% of the acceptable daily intake established by the
U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and World Health Organization
(FAO/WHO). Approximately 68% of dried mushroom samples exceeded
Chinese standards for lead content.

Pesticides and Fertilizer

6. (SBU) Various chemical residues from pesticides and fertilizers
in the vegetables and other farm produce are also high in the PRD
due not only to direct application of excessive amounts but also
from residual contamination in the region's soil. According to a
2003 report by the Guangdong Statistics Bureau, an average of 834 kg
of chemical fertilizers were applied on each hectare of farmland
each year, much higher than the international average of 36
kg/hectare annually. Wan Hongfu, a top expert on soil in PRD, told
us excessive amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides have
been used in PRD. He said that about 70% of the fertilizers and
70-90% of the pesticides end up polluting the environment and
damaging the ecological system of the PRD. Inappropriate
application of pesticides and defective products make the problem

7. (U) Soil contamination studies have found the pesticides
dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT) and beta-benzenehexachloride
(trade name HCH) in nearly 100% of samples. Detection rates for
other pesticides are also very high. In 2000, a market survey found
that 67.1% of vegetable samples exceeded standards for one or more
pesticides. In addition, the survey showed that 32.2% and 43.4% of
samples exceeded standards for two unnamed pesticides that Chinese
regulations prohibit for use on vegetables. A separate market
survey by a government agency yielded less alarming results. It
showed that about 10% of vegetables exceeded standards for at least
one of 22 pesticides, including methamidophos, dimecron and others.
The percentage of leaf and root vegetable that exceeded standards
was much higher. In 1999, inspection of tea from Guangdong found
that 30% of samples exceeded the standard just for DDT - with some
exceeding the lead standard as well. The problem could be much more
serious than these studies indicate because there is no testing for
many other pesticides, including some that are reportedly used

8. (U) Nitrate and nitrite contamination in soil from fertilizer and
sewage is also very serious in scale and degree. A paper published
in 2007 by Guangdong Ecological Environment and Soil Research
Institute indicated that 62.2% of sampled vegetables, especially
leaf vegetables, were highly polluted by nitrate and nitrite.
Another study put the rate for all vegetables at 70%. An inspection
of Guangdong market produce found that 90% of all vegetables and
100% of leaf vegetables exceeded the standard for nitrate and
nitrite with an average concentration of 2517 mg/kg (432 mg/kg is
the recommended FAO standard). A separate investigation showed the
concentration to be more than 1200 mg/kg in seven types of

Other Carcinogens

9. (U) Contamination of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs),
which are carcinogenic contaminants from fossil fuel use, in soil in
the PRD is another problem. Many PAH compounds are also mutagenic
and cause birth defects. The detection rate according to some
studies is more than 90% in PRD soil samples. In one investigation,
the levels of five probable human carcinogenic PAHs exceeded
standards in vegetable, rice, banana and orchid field soil samples
in the following amounts -- benzo[b]fluoranthene 88%,
benzo[k]fluoranthene 68%, benz[a]anthracene 13%, benzo[a]pyrene 4%,
indeno[1,2,3-cd]pyrene 3%.

Control Measures Inadequate

10. (SBU) Pollution in south China is severe, widespread and takes
many forms. The top goal of the Chinese government, especially at
local levels, is to prevent a major environmental incident.
Resources have been focused on drinking water and air pollution
mitigation, such as reduction of sulfur dioxide emissions. Soil
contamination has been neglected for a long time.

11. (SBU) Authorities in China are beginning to realize the
seriousness of soil pollution and have started to take measures to
improve the situation. A national survey of soil contamination
status is ongoing and a national database of soil contamination
should be established by the end of this year. The central
government is working on the Soil Contamination Prevention Act,
which is scheduled to be promulgated next year. This is a first
step in the right direction. The key to protecting the soil is
prevention, but it will be very hard to implement preventive
measures since many call for small highly polluting factories to be
closed or moved. According to a senior official and expert on soil
research, about one-third of factories in the PRD would have to be

moved or closed to comply with the Act. This could lead to social
instability, the top concern of authorities at all the levels of
Chinese government.

12. (SBU) In Guangdong, the provincial government seeks to address
pollution, including soil pollution, by transferring the polluting
industries into industrial parks with improved monitoring and
control. However, limited resources and the lack of local
compliance reduce the effectiveness of this strategy. A total of 28
provincial transfer industrial parks have been created in Guangdong
and, to date, not one has an operational waste treatment facility.
Waste treatment plants are being built in only three of the 28

13. (SBU) Experts in Guangdong have urged the government to enhance
inspection of vegetables in markets and establish no-hazard fields
for vegetables. Lack of contamination data for foods and lack of
openness regarding data that does exist make it difficult to know
the real scope of the problem. Local scientists agree that studies
similar in design to U.S. EPA studies assessing the total exposure
of the various pollutants from various sources such as food, water,
air and other pathways are important for measuring the cumulative
risk of exposure for residents of the PRD. The percentage
contributions from various pathways, pollutants, or industries could
help direct resources to reduce the overall risk. These types of
studies would also clarify the links between exposure, risk and
health effects for PRD residents.

Impact on the United States

14. (SBU) South China's soil contamination problems are increasingly
a U.S. concern. U.S. imports of Chinese agricultural and seafood
products have grown rapidly in recent years, and China is now the
United States' third largest source for these goods. U.S. imports
of Chinese agricultural and seafood products increased roughly
fourfold over the last ten years, from 433,000 metric tons (MT)
worth approximately USD 1 billion in 1997 to 2.1 million MT and USD
4.9 billion in 2007. If these trends continue, the potential for
Chinese soil contamination to threaten U.S. health will grow as


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