Racing through my memories gradually brought back images of darkened noon-time skies, masked faces bustling around town and billowing smoke stacks littering the countryside like post-modern trees. I also recall how an American couple residing there spoke of their plans to move to another city, alarmed at their young daughter’s deteriorating health due to the oppresive air pollution.
Little did I know when I was there that the Blacksmith Institute’s initial report (2006) was being prepared. It states that “when asked to comment on the environmental conditions of Linfen, one environmental expert quipped, ‘If you have a grudge against someone, let this guy become a permanent citizen of Linfen! Why? For punishment!’"
It goes on to say that “Living in a town with serious pollution is like living under a death sentence. If the damage does not come from immediate poisoning, then cancers, lung infections and mental retardation are likely outcomes. Often insidious and unseen, and usually in places with deficient and exhausted health systems, pollution is an unacknowledged burden on the poor and marginalized in the developing world. It is a major factor impairing economic growth, and a significant strain on the lives of already impoverished people.” The 2007 report goes even further: “The World Health Organization, in conjunction with the World Bank, estimates that 20 percent of deaths in the developing world are directly attributed to environmental factors from pollution.”
The Blacksmith Institute “attempts to objectively expose sites that have the most extreme effects on human health … to indicate that there are potential remedies for these sites.” Criteria it uses to identify the worst perpetrators are “toxicity and scale of the pollution sources and … the numbers of people at risk.”
Potentially affected people: 3,000,000
Type of pollutant: Fly-ash, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, PM-2.5, PM-10,
sulfur dioxide, volatile organic compounds, arsenic, lead.
Source of pollution: Automobile and industrial emissions
Rapid development and unequivocal faith in industry has led to the development of hundreds of unregulated coal mines, steel factories and refineries which have not only polluted indiscriminately but have also diverted agricultural water sources. Water is so tightly rationed that even the provincial capital receives water for only a few hours each day.
The high levels of pollution are taking a serious toll on the health of Linfen’s inhabitants. Local clinics are seeing growing cases of bronchitis, pneumonia, and lung cancer. The children of
A growing number of local deaths in recent years have been linked to these overwhelming pollution levels. Arsenicosis, a disease caused by drinking elevated concentrations of arsenic found in water is at epidemic levels in the area. Chronic exposure to this toxic chemical results in skin lesions, peripheral vascular disease, hypertension, blackfoot disease, and high cancer incidence rates. A study of
Status of Clean-Up Activity:
By the end of this year, the city of
One thing is to read these words on a screen, another is to drink that water and breathe that air. I did that for a month but many of the friends I left behind there have done it all of their lives, and continue to do so.
I can’t end this blog on such a note. You see, I had an incredibly beautiful experience there and I’d like to share some of that with those of you who may be thinking “those poor people” right about now.
I spent a month training English teachers at the invitation of a Baha’i inspired NGO that specializes in education for development. I had lived in Chinese culture as an adolescent, but I hadn’t remembered the warmth and brightness of the people that I experienced during this visit. I made a lot of special friends, very astute and sincere people. As you can imagine, I also experienced a lot of culture shock, especially with the toiletless bathrooms and the general absence of children. Aside from these, most of the culture shock I experienced was the good kind that made me reflect on my own culture, and question it.
For example, I never saw any alcohol during my entire visit there, except in a couple of nice restaurants, and even then in very moderate quantities. Scenes of groups of men that “install” themselves on street corners to drink until dawn, man and wife screaming at each other through alcohol-laden lips, crashes on highways littered with bottles and drunkards sleeping in the streets flashed through my mind as I thought of my beloved
Nor did I witness anything resembling the vast and shocking gulf that separates rich from poor as I do here every day. Only in
Also, I spent a blissful month away from everything processed. No Coke, food-like substances, corn syrup or deep-fried flour and sugar-based junk food. There were a huge variety of meat products, that is for sure, but alongside the most amazing diversity of nuts, fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices imaginable. Everybody drinks real tea with every meal.
My friends also told me that, although it has been on the rise lately especially in the cities, there is still a very low level of sexual promiscuity. Discipline, courage, honor and family loyalty still reign among the youth. Learning science and technology is a high priority for youth as well, even in the most rural areas. The streets were clean and well-taken care of. The doctor we visited to cure my friend’s fairly severe cold treated her with such care with ancient herbal remedies that cleansed her whole organism. Ornate architecture, beautiful decorations, colors everywhere.
All of these memories make it harder for me to swallow that this admirable culture flowers under such oppressive air contamination. The current economic growth imperative, increasingly driven by western influence, needs to be rethought to include and celebrate all of the cultural aspects that make these people so unique and wonderful. Otherwise, they will soon clash, and the growth imperative, at least as it is currently conceived and practiced, doesn’t stand to lose.