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.
Researchers from Goldsmiths, University of London have studied a remote tribe in Africa – where some people have remained in the countryside while others have moved to urban areas. BBC News online reports
It found the urbanised group found it much harder to focus their attention.
Researcher Karina Linnell says the difference in powers of concentration was much greater than expected.
It might also confirm the worst fears of all the caffeine-fuelled office workers trying to multi-task.
Dr Linnell, from the university’s psychology department, carried out cognitive tests with the Himba tribe in Namibia in south west Africa – and also included a further comparison with young people in London.
She found that the Himba tribesmen and women who had stayed in a rural, cattle-herding setting were much better at tests requiring concentration than members of the same tribe who had been urbanised and were living in towns and cities.
Bright lights, big city
The results for urbanised Himba were “indistinguishable” from the results of undergraduates taking the same tests in London, said Dr Linnell.
The researchers suggest that people in an urban setting have too much stimulation, with an overload of sights and sounds competing for attention.
Concentration is improved when people’s senses are aroused, says Dr Linnell, but if this becomes excessive it seems to have the opposite effect and reduces the ability to focus on a single task.
As such the people living in cities were not as good at tests which required sustained focus and the ability not to be distracted.
The rural living people were much better at such tests of concentration, even computer-based tasks, where they might have been expected to be less familiar with the technology.
This is not necessarily a case of being better or worse, says Dr Linnell, but it could be a reflection of what is needed to survive in an overcrowded urban setting.
It is also not a “fleeting” impact, she suggests, as the tests show that urbanised people from this tribe have developed a different way of looking at events.
“There are really quite profound differences as a function of how we live our lives,” she says.
Another finding is that the Himba people who have moved to the city are more likely to be dissatisfied and show signs of unhappiness.
In contrast the simpler, frugal life of the rural tribespeople seems to leave them with a greater sense of contentment.
When so many of the world’s population are now living in urban settings this has far-reaching significance, says Dr Linnell.
It could mean that many urban dwellers are performing below their capacity when it comes to tasks requiring sustained thinking.
“What if, for example, companies realised certain tasks would be better carried out by employees based outside of the urban environment where their concentration ability is better?” she says.
Dr Linnell also suggests that this urban disruption of concentration could be linked to a reduction in attention spans.
“In London one could walk into the world’s best museums without having to pay”
Which city has the lowest rental, which city sells the cheapest hamburger meal, and which city would you go to buy designer bags? China Daily sends out correspondents to seven cities to get you the answers.
Every city has its bright or bad facets and most of us have love-hate relationships with our chosen site of abode, in varying degrees. Our investigative team does a random sampling of interviews in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, New York, London and Paris, to find out the ups and downs of daily life in terms of dollars and cents – and come up with some surprising answers.
This is neither scientific research nor a report to tell everyone which is the best city to live in,but rather a presentation of what it is like living in these cities and a reflection of its urban psychographics.
According the The Economist’s Intelligence Unit, one of the features of the cost-of-living ranking over the last few years has been the rise of many Asian cities offsetting traditionally more costly European locations. In our interviews, we find rising Asian hubs such as Singapore and Hong Kong among the top 20 most expensive cities. In fact, of the world’s 20 most expensive cities, 11 are from Asia. The rest are from the West. A decade ago, it was six Asian cities compared to 10 European cities, with four from the United States.
Wei Dongjian from Beijing says he and his fiancee Wu Yuanping plan to move to Guangzhou,the provincial capital of Guangdong province, in the next few years, where the climate is milder,and where she can escape Beijing’s notorious smog.
“I’m not suited to Beijing’s environment. On average, I end up in the doctor’s office every other month,” says Wu.
Winky Lee’s biggest complaint about living in Hong Kong is also its pollution. But like many Hong Kong residents, Lee has a love-hate relationship with the city.
“The climate is hospitable. It is easy and inexpensive to travel and experience different cultures within Asia,” Lee says. “The low taxes are a big plus. The city offers a lot of public holidays which helps break up long hours at the office,” she says.
But, Lee feels that it is difficult to meet romantic prospects because of the city’s transient nature. She also bemoans the housing market and how difficult it is to afford a flat.
Another Asian city that shares similar characteristics as Hong Kong is Singapore. Residents are drawn to the city-state because it is safe, sheltered from natural disasters, wired and has one of the lowest income taxes in the region. English is widely spoken and understood, and being a regional air-transport hub – one can travel anywhere in the world at a fairly low cost.
But because of its small size, the island is crowded and as a result, prices of housing and private vehicles have been skyrocketing, and current infrastructure and public transport struggle to meet the needs of the population size.
For those who love the arts, London and Paris are two cities that are oozing with it.
Frederick Schneider who works for an advertising agency in London says one could walk into the world’s best museums without having to pay.
He says London is also a good place to build one’s career. “It is a truly metropolitan city and you meet the most amazing people here,” Schneider says, but he quickly adds that, “It is exciting, but it is also exhausting.”
Housing and transportation in London are among the most expensive in the world, and the weather is rarely comfortable.
Aurelie, a Parisien, says she enjoys living in Paris because of the city’s rich artistic and cultural life. She keeps aside about $45 a month for art exhibitions and shows.
“There is also a tremendous choice of painting exhibitions, theater plays and old movie theaters such as Cinema Mac Mahon that replays old films,” she says, adding that she finds the magnificent architecture of Paris endearing.
If there is anything that Aurelie hates about Paris, it is the fact that the Parisiens are less friendly compared to those from smaller towns. Plus, people have to work much longer hours than those living in other French towns.
Meanwhile, New York City, often described as “the capital of the world”, is a place where contradictions co-exist and thrive side-by-side.
“All you need is an open mind and an appreciation for the opportunity to experience so much in one place,” mortgage consultant Joseph D’Alessio says.
But he admits that “it is very hard to relax when you live in NYC” and that “it is more difficult toraise a family” in the city.
One common denominator stands out among those interviewed. Travel ranks as their top priority, with almost all of them saving up for overseas trips.
The photos he showed me suggest a city of spreading banyan trees along the streets, dilapidated government buildings, and vendors who do not have to run at rumors of the approach of chengguan (“urban management”) officials.
I feel enchanted by the pictures, though some modern Chinese would immediately pronounce such a place “backward,” shabby, definitely unsuitable as a tourist destination.
Strangely, when our landscape becomes dominated by high-rises, boulevards, expansive squares, landmarks, manicured lawns and neon lights, we become a bit nostalgic for the unpretentious old city where children could safely mingle in the neighborhood, vendors could hawk their wares loud and clear in the side lanes, and streets were shaded by the canopy of plane trees.
Today our city consists more of theatricals, props, steady “improvements” better admired by out-of-town tourists, best admired from an air-conditioned limousine.
We have attained nearly all the attributes expected of an international metropolis, but many find something lacking in the over-sanitized landscape.
It has been reported that the Ji’nan City government is housed in a 4 billion yuan (US$640 million) edifice, where the main corridor extends for one kilometer. The government complex, completed in 2007, is the biggest of its kind in China and globally second only to the Pentagon. It is served by 48 elevators.
We are close to another world record, but how many of our readers would prefer to work there?
We now live in a country where constant pursuit of superlatives seldom allows a tree to mature to old age.
Don’t worry, we still have some “underdeveloped” regions that are more than willing to export their huge trees for a sum of money.
The sun and the alignment of constellations used to instill fear in us, so nearly all historic annals kept meticulous records of solar and lunar eclipses and other unusual celestial phenomena as a warning of misrule in the Middle Kingdom, or portents of imminent calamity.
Today we are more or less fearless, though we still get alarmed by the unusual levels of GDP, PPI, or PMI, as spun by the economists, the new age priests. As we know, these figures, subject to the whims of our economists, can trigger feelings of happiness or depression.
We have to resort to these external indices to confirm our inner feelings. And the predictability of our inner feeling is very important for the smooth operation of the social machine.
CCTV recently sponsored a program on “happiness,” by randomly asking people on the street, “Are you happy?”
Before they had time to ask the question, a pedestrian – knowing what they wanted to ask – blurted out: “I am very happy, very happy indeed.”
At a recent forum in Stockholm, newly anointed Nobel Prize laureate in literature Mo Yan was also asked, “Are you happy?” by a young Chinese man, and Mo’s response: “Are you from CCTV?”
In a sense, Mo’s happiness has been firmly confirmed by a panel of overseas art arbitrators. Globalized metrics or awards can immensely flatter our perception of our inner bliss.
Even thoughtful people have to decide about their feelings in reference to standard metrics.
For instance, last Tuesday’s ranking of most clicked articles on caixin.com was: (1) “China’s urban jobless rate is 8.05 percent, for the first six months.” (2) “Survey finds the income gap in China for 2010 well in excess of global average,” and (3) “China’s inflation will spike over 5 percent by the end of next year: Nomura Securities.”
Here our personal feelings are delicately constrained by the global average in employment rate, income, and price level.