Officials in the city of Qingdao had used bulldozers to remove 7,335 tonnes of the growth from beaches according to the Xinhua news agency.
The phenomenon has become an annual occurrence in the region over the past six summers. This year’s incident has swathed 28 900 sq km (11 158 sq miles), twice as much as the previous biggest bloom in 2008.
However the carpet on the surface can dramatically change the ecology of the environment beneath it. It blocks sunlight from entering the ocean and sucks oxygen from the water suffocating marine life.
The algae thrives on an abundance of nutrients in the sea. University of Cambridge and EnAlgae Project researcher Dr Brenda Parker said that the Chinese bloom may well be linked to industrial pollution.
“Algal blooms often follow a massive discharge of phosphates or nitrates into the water. Whether it’s farming, untreated sewage or some kind of industrial plant that is discharging waste into the water,” she said.
The recent explosion of the algae pointed to a dramatic change in the ecosystem which was probably not natural.
“That would probably be an indicator that something is a little bit unbalanced,” said Parker.
She said that the 2009 example algal bloom on the Brittany coast was a similar example of a human-induced algal bloom.
With China’s large and expanding population, it’s inevitable that pollution has crept in
THE “cadmium rice” scandal has raised awareness of the extent of heavy metal pollution in China, but the situation in Shanghai is considerably better. Zhang Qian talks to researchers mapping city pollution. Shanghai Daily reports
Cadmium discovered in rice from Hunan Province astonished Chinese residents once again, indicating a more pervasive food safety problem and focusing attention on the dangerous levels of heavy metal soil pollution.
The discovery of the toxic, cancer-causing heavy metal in Hunan rice came to light in February in Guangzhou Province. News reports said contaminated batches had been discovered over the years.
Scientists found that no cadmium was part of any chemical additives used after the rice was harvested, thus, leaving heavy metal soil pollution as the likely cause.
Cadmium, a known carcinogen, builds up in the body and damages the kidneys, lungs and bones, causing brittle bones and pain.
It is one of several toxic heavy metals that have leached from Hunan mines, mine tailings and chemical factories into waterways, mainly the Xiangjiang River and tributaries. Water from contaminated rivers, lakes and streams is typically diverted in rice paddies where metals settle into the soil and taint the crops.
Though less obvious than air and water pollution, soil pollution is now getting unprecedented public and official attention, with the revelation of “cadmium rice.”
China’s Ministry of Land and Resources is said to be working on a nationwide soil pollution map, with checks on 81 chemical indexes (including 78 chemical elements) in the topsoil and deep soil all over the country.
The Shanghai Environmental Protection Bureau is also launching a soil pollution investigation of key industrial areas in the city.
Lead, mercury, cadmium, arsenic and chromium are the top five heavy metals frequently discovered in polluted soil near industrial areas. Antimony and selenium are also found in some regions. Heavy metals are essential in electronic gadgets and their batteries.
“Soil pollution is not a new issue, the problem has existed for more than a decade. But the polluted regions are expanding at an enormous speed in recent years,” says Professor Chen Zhenlou of Resource and Environmental Science School of East China Normal University.
“Generally speaking, heavy metal soil pollution in Shanghai is not as serious as that in Hunan and Jiangxi provinces, and there is no need to worry about ‘cadmium rice’ with the relatively low content of cadmium in local soil,” says Professor Chen. However, there are polluted areas and sources of pollution date back to the days before toxic discharges were banned.
Rice quality report
About one-fifth of China’s farmland, more than 20 million hectares, is polluted by heavy metal and farmland polluted by cadmium is found in around 25 regions in 11 provinces, according to a report issued in 2010 by institutes including the Agriculture Ministry’s rice quality test center.
The report, titled “Research on China’s Rice Quality, the Safety Situation and Development of Countermeasures,” indicates that the problem is most serious in regions south of the Yangtze River, including Hunan and Jiangxi provinces.
“The problem is that the soil cannot self-purify itself from heavy metals,” says Professor Chen, “Once the heavy metal pollution happens, it stays. Even pesticides degrade in 20-30 years, but heavy metals can never degrade the natural way.”
Using irrigation water polluted by domestic sewage and industrial waste was common in the 1970s and 80s.
Irrigating with such polluted water has been banned since the 1990s, but the heavy metals discharged before that period have persisted.
Would have been good fir World Oceans Day. A performing arts presentation by the Jarratt Create & Educate students. The students were given the theme of Ocean Pollution. The rest was down to them from script writing, organisng themselves into groups to meeting the final deadline (in 2.5 days). Even the video was produced and edited by the students. We are very proud of their results!
Many high-profile pollution incidents, which triggered nationwide outrage, are among the 13 cases the ministry has revealed its response to.
The most recent major pollution scandal to provoke a public outcry was in March, when Deng Lianjun, then-head of the local environmental protection department, responded to residents concerns over a polluted river in Cangxian county, Hebei province, by saying just because it had turned red that didn’t mean the water was unsafe to drink, because “after boiling with red beans the water has that color, too”.
The river was later found to contain levels of aniline that were 73 times higher than the national standard.
The announcement said Deng had been removed from his post, and the local environmental protection department is testing water and soil samples from a nearby chemical factory that was believed to have caused the pollution.
“The ministry’s statement is a leap forward in official environmental information disclosure,” said Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, an environmental NGO that aims to promote environmental information disclosure in China.
Ma said he was especially happy to see that the ministry has responded not only to issues disclosed by traditional media, but also to hot issues generated from online posts and discussions.
One of them was an allegation that first appeared in February on Sina Weibo, claiming that factories in Weifang, Shandong province, had polluted the local water supply by pumping wastewater 1,000 meters underground.
The ministry’s statement said an investigation led by the local government found no solid evidence that this had happened, but it found that many small paint factories have been operating without wastewater treatment facilities.
The statement said the local environmental protection department plans a further investigation into the illegal dumping of wastewater, and will accelerate the construction of sewage discharge pipelines in the region.
Ma said although the ministry’s statement was welcome it was a bit too simple, briefly summarizing the response to the 13 cases, and he hoped in the future the investigation process, the problems discovered and how they would be addressed, would be disclosed in more detail.
In another case, companies in an industrial park located in the Tengger desert in the Inner Mongolia autonomous region, have been dumping their wastewater directly into the desert without treatment.
Production was halted completely in the industrial park after the situation was exposed in March, and it will not be resumed until all enterprises are equipped with a sewage discharge system.
The residents of Maogang looked on in despair as first dozens, then hundreds, and ultimately 10,164 dead pigs were pulled out of the Huangpu River.
This small town south-west of Shanghai is near the Xietanggang water intake for the Songjiang Water Pumping Station and one of the four main sources of water for Shanghai.
“We don’t dare drink the river water,” said one villager. The township government has had to bring in a week’s worth of drinking water.
The pigs are believed to have floated downstream from Shaoxing, in the neighbouring province of Zhejiang.
It’s a new problem, but the causes – waterway pollution and failures to manage rivers across administrative boundaries and government departments – are old complaints.
“Dead pigs have always ended up in Shanghai. This time they just went there by river, instead of by truck,” said one Shaoxing pig farmer, pointing at a porcine corpse.
Illegal selling of dead meat
It was only two years ago that pigs started to be dumped in the river. “In the past you could sell them, so they didn’t end up in the river.” The pig farmers all referred back to a court case two years ago, which shocked the city.
Everyone in Shaoxing knows about the case, which saw 17 people tried. In November 2012, the three ringleaders were given life sentences.
It was a typical tale for a pig-farming village. Dong Guoquan and two others ran an illegal butcherhouse, buying in dead pigs. “They got them cheap, one yuan or so per jin.” One farmer explained that a young pig which died of illness would weigh less than 50 jin, an older one no more than 100 [one jin is half a kilogram].
But that didn’t do business any harm. The city’s intermediate court found that in only two years Dong and the others had bought and butchered 77,000 pigs and sold the meat on for 8.65 million yuan. Most of them came from the townships of Fengqiao, where the village is, and Xinfeng.
“Once they’d been arrested nobody wanted to risk buying up dead pigs openly,” 57-year old villager Guo Yue (not his real name) told Southern Weekend. His village of Zhulin, in Xinfeng, is famous for supplying pigs to Hong Kong.
But that meant more pigs were getting thrown in the river. Environmental protection staff in the Songjiang district of Shanghai said they’d taken a trip up river all the way to a concrete plant in Pinghu, Shanghai. Traces of dead pigs were visible all along the route.
A worker on a dredger boat in Caoqiao, Pinghu, said that on March 17, when they had already been working for a week, his boat was still pulling out over 20 pig carcasses a day.
“We do it every year at this time,” said a Zhulin villager responsible for the work. The fishermen all change jobs for a while and start catching pigs.
A Zhejiang environmental protection report in 2011 found that 7.7 million pigs were being farmed in Shaoxing. On average 2% to 4% will die, which means between 150,000 and 300,000 corpses need to be disposed of.
“If dumped, they cause bacterial and viral pollution, as well as 20,000 to 30,000 tonnes of chemical oxygen demand,” the report said.
But, still, there are no provisions for proper disposal in place. Many officials – including Chen Yunhua, village secretary in Zhulin; Yuan Liqiang, deputy neighbourhood head in Caoqiao; and Dong Yue, deputy neighbourhood head in Yuantong – said that it was only in 2011, that Shaoxing saw any large scale construction of disposal pits.
But it’s been nowhere near enough. Zhulin is a major pig farming village, but Chen Yunhua explained that there are only seven pits, with an eighth being built.
Others pointed out that one pit can handle three to five thousand corpses. But according to the Shaoxing Daily, 18,400 pigs died in the village in just the first two months of the year. Capacity is overstretched. “The rest just get dumped in the fields or the river,” the villagers say.
Officials try to limit pig farming
A Shaoxing government report admitted that: “the dumping of pigs which have died of illness happens to varying degrees in all districts of Shaoxing.”
“The dead pigs weren’t a big problem in the past, it was pollution from the farming,” said Wang Yubing, deputy at the Pinghu Environmental Protection Bureau. Pinghu borders the Shanghai district of Jinshan and is upriver of the city, and pollution from pig farms further upriver in Nanhu and Haiyan damage water quality.
“The biggest pollution problem for Shaoxing is poultry and livestock farming,” said Xu Luzhong, an inspector with the Zhejiang environmental authorities, when he visited the city. Pig excrement, slurry and the corpses dumped all over mean that the beautiful water town is giving off a bit of a stink.
“There are 130,000 farmers raising over 7 million pigs. Each pig excretes as much as 6 or 7 adult humans,” said Yu Hongwei, deputy of the city’s environmental bureau.
“The government are trying to limit numbers, persuading us to change jobs,” said Chen Yunhua. To cut pig numbers, in 2011 the city set up zones where pig farming was banned or limited, including in Zhulin: “By 2015, pig numbers will be reduced from 7.5 million to about 2 million.” And no pigs may be farmed within 200 metres of minor waterways, and within 100 metres of more important ones, Chen said.
This was intended to improve worsening water quality. A source with the Shaoxing environmental authorities said that despite the measures the city accounted for two of the locations named and shamed when the provincial bureau checked water quality province-wide. Both the urban centre and the wider city had water of sub-Class 5, the worst level of water quality.
Shanghai relies on water from outside its boundaries, a major headache for its government. It has never managed to do anything effective about upstream pollution.
“The waterways in Shaoxing are just so complex it’s a struggle to monitor them,” complained Ren Weiliang, deputy of the Pinghu water authorities. There are 3,458 waterways in Pinghu alone, stretching for 2,256 kilometres.
And pig farmers are usually very small operations, which makes them harder to regulate. Yuan Liqiang says that most of the farmers in his jurisdiction are households keeping pigs in their yards. There’s so many of them that “sometimes it really is hard to keep control.”
The way waterways are managed is also being re-thought. Ren Weiliang explained that in the past the port, urban, water and environmental authorities were all involved.
“Sometimes they see waste floating downstream but can’t do anything,” said Ren. Pinghu is considering changing the way that works. And to solve problems with cross-boundary coordination the Shaoxing water authorities have set up mechanisms in Xinfeng, Fengqiao and Caoqiao, with boundary rivers being divided up into stretches assigned to different towns.
But those efforts don’t connect up with Shanghai. Zheng Zheng, director of Fudan University Basin Pollution Control Research Center, said that it is currently easy for blind spots to arise between upper and lower stretches of rivers. Shanghai is powerless to regulate its rivers upstream. “We can’t enforce the law, or issue punishments,” Zheng said.
“When pollution crosses boundaries, people try and pass the buck,” Zheng continued. In the end nobody knows who should pay. “A tracing mechanism would solve it.” He went on to explain this would mean 24-hour monitoring, so “as soon as you notice something coming from upstream, it’s the upstream government’s problem – as for which specific body or authority, they can figure that out themselves.”
But water quality on the upper Huangpu – a long-standing source of drinking water – has long been badly damaged. “Water quality on other tributaries was Class 5 or worse as far back as 2004,” recalled one official who participated in a meeting on preventing pollution in important watersheds that year.
Maogang is located by an important source of water, but is still powerless. On January 10 this year, two months before the pig scandal, a leak from a boat carrying chemical containers forced the nearby pumping station to halt work.
To avoid these risks, Shanghai has been forced to look for alternative ways to quench its thirst. “From the sources of the Huangpu to building the Qingcaosha Reservoir at the mouth of the Yangtze, Shanghai is looking for safer water,” said Chen Zhenlou. But the Yangtze isn’t any safer, and its water quality it also under threat.
So Shanghai is even looking at desalinisation. The latest idea is to take water from Qiandao Lake in Zhejiang – “more than 2 billion cubic metres a year.”
• Originally published in Southern Weekend. With contributions from Southern Weekend intern Wang Yue.
With Beijing and Shanghai people (where I am), this comes from The Guardian…
When Justin Bieber collapsed last week at the O2 arena in London and was taken to a private clinic feeling “short of breath” and needing oxygen, the rumours started flying that he had had an asthma attack. They were denied by his management, but it would have been understandable if he had. Most of last week, London’s air was heavily polluted, with many of the capital’s pollution monitors recording “high” nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels as an acute photochemical smog of fumes and microscopic particles (PM) of acids, chemicals, metals and dust drifted in from the continent, mixed with London diesel exhaust and then became trapped in the still, dry air.
Only a mile or so from the O2, Rosalind Dalton had also been feeling short of breath and needed her Symbicort 200 steroid inhaler. She, too, is a singer, who has been in operatic societies since she was 15, but she says she can’t hold the long phrases these days. She lives near the Woolwich flyover, where a grey, 3ft-high air pollution monitoring box on a slip road to a busy road regularly shows pollution regularly well over the legal limit. Recently she was diagnosed with a long-term lung condition, even though neither she nor her family have ever smoked. “The air pollution has been bad in the last few weeks. On one occasion I set off to walk to Sainsbury’s and turned back because I was having symptoms,” she says.
Meanwhile, Malachi Chadwick found himself wheezing just months after he moved in 2009 from York to London to work with climate change group 10:10. He bikes around 40 miles a week in the city and his doctor has diagnosed asthma – almost certainly aggravated by air pollution. “The air quality of the two cities is noticeably different. When you bike you get [air pollution] full in the face,” she said.
The last few weeks have been stressful for many of the 5.4 million people, including 1.1 million children, who are receiving treatment for asthma and for the tens of thousands of others with respiratory diseases. Since Christmas, there have been four major air pollution episodes, stretching from London to Nottingham, Birmingham, Leeds, Dundee and Glasgow. A pollution monitor in Downpatrick in Northern Ireland registered 10, the highest possible level of NO2. On 3 March, the department of the environment advised people to reduce or avoid strenuous activity and Matthew Pencharz, the mayor of London’s environment adviser, said it would be “sensible” for children to be kept away from playgrounds during smog episodes.
Dr Ian Mudway, a lecturer in respiratory toxicology with the environmental research group at King’s College London university, has spent several years walking the routes that children take to school in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, measuring the pollutants in the air they breathe and determining their impacts on their respiratory health. He is shocked at the levels of pollutants these children are exposed to on a daily basis and fears for the permanent damage being done by to their lungs by the ultra-fine particles and gases emitted by diesel engines.
East London has long been heavily polluted by industry but Tower Hamlets has some of the busiest roads in Britain passing close to large high-density housing estates. Nowhere in the borough is further than 500 metres from a busy road and new housing developments targeted at young families are popping up right by main roads.
Air pollution, especially from diesel engines, is a “neglected, hidden killer” and children and old people are especially at risk, says Mudway. “There’s strong evidence that if you live near main roads you will have smaller lungs,” he says. “They will not reach capacity and will be stunted. When, or if, people move to a cleaner environment they still do not recover the function they lost. We have good evidence that every child born in Tower Hamlets will have a reduction in the volume of their lungs by the age of eight. The point is, people die of lung disease later on. You store up a problem that will affect you later,” he says.
He lists some of the effects of polluted air. In the short term, it leads to irritation to the eyes, nose and throat, headaches, nausea, bronchitis and pneumonia. Over a longer period it can result in heart attacks and lung diseases, cancers, even damage to the brain, nerves, liver, and kidneys.
“The [people who die] are only the very end of a spectrum of health effects,” he told a group of Tower Hamlet residents at a public meeting organised last month by Friends of the Earth on the extra air pollution which would be caused by a proposed new four-lane road tunnel below the Thames.
“For everyone who dies there are many more who are hospitalised or who have impaired health. Prolonged exposure to elevated [particulate pollution levels] is associated with significant life-shortening and poor respiratory health. Acute episodes can precipitate death in sensitive subjects.”
The more researchers like Mudway look at the health effects of air pollution, the worse it seems to get. The latest figures suggest 29,000 people die prematurely from it every year in Britain, twice as many as from road traffic, obesity and alcohol combined, and that air pollution is now second only to smoking as a cause of death.
Its seriousness is confirmed by Asthma UK polls: “Two thirds of people with asthma have told us that traffic fumes make it worse and one third say a reduction in air pollution would make the most difference to their lives,” says a spokeswoman.
After years of focusing on climate change, government and environment groups are only now slowly waking up to the public health crisis. In 2011, the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee calculated that living in an air pollution hot spot could shave nine years off the lives of the most vulnerable people. It concluded that it cost Britain £6-19bn a year, or up to 17% of the total NHS budget, and that 15-20% more people died prematurely from it in cities with high levels of pollution than those in relatively cleaner ones.
London, with 4,300 deaths a year, is one of the worst in Europe and the pollution monitor on Marylebone Road shows the fourth highest levels of NO2 of over 2,000 monitoring stations in Europe. The city has 2,500 schools and 180,000 children within 150m of roads carrying 10,000 or more vehicles a day.
“Fighting change are a few people in government who have either failed to understand that long-term exposure to air pollution is the biggest public health risk after smoking or they simply don’t care and want to cover-up the issue for as long as possible. It is much worse than most of us have realised. It is one of the biggest public health failings for decades,” says Simon Birkett, a former banker who set up the campaigning group Clean Air in London (CAL) in 2009. Joan Walley MP, chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, despairs: “It’s a scandal that the same number of people are dying of air pollution in London now as back in the 1950s. The Government needs to step in.”
Faced with massive health costs, threatened with large fines for not complying with EU laws passed 13 years ago, and warned last week by the UN World Health Organisation that exposure to NO2 is harmful at far lower levels than the limits currently set by Europe, you might think the government would act. But Britain has spent nearly 15 years ignoring the problem, lobbying to extend timetables, working with other countries to weaken the rules and giving financial incentives for people to switch to the most polluting technologies.
Ministers admit they are breaking the laws but claim it is not possible to meet the EU limits. Mayor Boris Johnson has tried small-scale techno-fixes like living walls of plants and dust suppressants but these measures have been shown to be not nearly enough. Last week he proposed an “ultra low emission zone”, which would ban all but the very lowest emission vehicles from central London during working hours. But the measure would not come into force until 2020 and was widely dismissed as PR.
One reason that it has been able to dodge the law is that modern air pollution is mostly invisible, colourless, odourless, and tasteless, or comes in particles so small they can pas through masks. Sixty years ago you could practically cut the coal smoke belching from chimneys. It turned buildings and clothes black, damaged crops and gave people lasting diseases. But when coal declined, the problem was assumed to have gone.
“We see the health impact today but it’s difficult to take seriously because you cannot see it. The solutions involve closing roads and reducing traffic, so it’s very hard for most political parties to even imagine acting,” said Jenny Jones, London Green party assembly member.
These days air pollution comes largely from diesel engines. It can be best seen when fumes get trapped and a dull orange-grey smog develops. Technically, it is produced by sunlight reacting with nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds (VOC) in the atmosphere. When sunlight hits these chemicals, they form airborne particles and the result is ground-level ozone or smog. Overall, diesel cars emit less hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide and lead pollution than petrol cars, but produce more noxious gases and significantly more minute particles. A 2011 test by government to measure emissions from vehicles in everyday use concluded that, while petrol emissions had improved by 96%, “emissions of NOx [nitrogen oxide] from diesel cars and light goods vehicles have not decreased for the past 15-20 years.
“The pollution mix has changed over time as traffic has emerged as the predominate source. It’s not only the small, nanosize of the particles, but also their changed composition and their interaction with gaseous co-pollutants that give us cause for concern. The lower levels of these particles in today’s air in no way suggests they are any less harmful than the historic pollutant episodes.” says Ian Mudway.
Meanwhile, there are many more diesels than before. They have increased across Europe by 35% since 1990 and, says the Society of Motor Manufacturers, over 50% of all cars registered in Britain are now diesel, up from 23% in 2002. One reason is that cities and government have offered tax incentives for diesels.
“Air pollution remains one of the most under-addressed public health problems, comparable to obesity and alcohol, but some government policies such as encouraging diesel vehicles in cities, are making the problem even worse. It is crucial that perverse incentives that encourage polluting vehicles and technologies are removed,” says Conservative thinktank Policy Exchange.
“The case raises a fundamental question about the rule of law. If the supreme court is unable to give an effective remedy to a clear and admitted breach of EU environmental law, there are grave constitutional consequences. There is now the distinct possibility that this will be referred to the European court of justice,” says ClientEarth lawyer Alan Andrews.
If it is ruled that Europe should have no say in whether its laws are implemented, then the government need do nothing more and pollution will go on unchecked. If ClientEarth win, it may take Europe years to act. Either way, Malachi Chadwick, Rosalind Dalton and 5.4 million people with asthma will have to wait for respite.