Sunday, July 28, 2013

China's Soil Survey Boondoggle

Yesterday, The Wall Street Journal reported on China's serious soil pollution problems and the government's refusal to release the results of a national soil survey six years after it was begun and two years after it was completed.

In December 2012, Southern Weekend published a report of its extensive investigation of the soil survey. The details of the soil survey reveal that Chinese officialdom, for all its talk about a "scientific outlook on development," clings to Chinese government tradition of reporting only statistics that show its policies in a good light and hiding any results that are embarrassing. Furthermore, the slapdash approach to implementing gigantic programs, infighting and chaotic organization make it virtually impossible to produce reliable statistics in China.

For decades, officials have been cognizant of problems with soil contamination and potential for vegetables and rice to absorb the pollutants. The 2006 official Chinese government announcement of the soil survey said China faced "serious" soil pollution problems that affected 150 million mu of land (about 8 percent of the total) and 12 million metric tons of grain annually. The survey was intended to make a nationwide map showing areas contaminated with heavy metals, pesticide residue, and organic pollutants and use the results to guide remediation efforts.

However, the Chinese government is not really interested in objective science.  Results of the survey--completed in 2010--were never announced. A Chinese citizen's information requests filed with the Ministry of Environmental Protection were denied for reasons of "stability" and "international image." The results were potentially embarrassing and were thought to potentially harm the reputation of Chinese agricultural exports.  A Southern Weekend reporter attended a meeting in 2012 where results of the survey were discussed, but he said the meeting was hastily concluded when it was learned that a journalist was present.
Cartoon from Southern Weekend: observers wonder why soil pollution survey results 
remain locked in a vault--because they are "not scientific" or "not public"?

Southern Weekend reporters interviewed numerous scholars and environmental protection officials who participated in the survey. Participants could not discuss the survey results since they had signed a confidentiality agreement. One scholar couldn't fathom why the results weren't revealed since he thought the extent of pollution it showed was not that alarming. Another participant speculated that the government couldn't release the results without having a plan in place to deal with the problem.

Another purported reason for withholding the survey results was the unreliability of the data due to numerous problems in carrying out the survey. The Environment and Land Ministries were to contribute 500 million yuan each to fund it, but the Ministry of Land Resources only came up with half of its share. The survey was delayed as organizers waited for funding to come in. Guangdong Province conducted its survey with only half of the funds planned and reduced the number of sampled sites from the planned number of 4800 to 3000.

The survey divided the entire country's land area into grids and chose samples. However, the grids were larger than planned, partly due to short budgets. For cropland, the grids were supposed to be 8 square km in most regions and 4 square km in coastal regions. However, 16-square-km grids were used, so large that they would not yield meaningful information.

According to Southern Weekend, the survey was conducted by local environmental monitoring stations. The personnel were not scientists and may have altered methods for convenience, cost, or perhaps pressure from local officials or industry. In remote areas with complex geography the local officials substituted their own sample sites or, in some cases, reported data from old surveys carried out in previous decades. An official from Sichuan Province's environmental protection bureau told the Southern Weekend reporter that the survey doesn't reflect the actual situation.

Statistical data are useless if they can't be interpreted. A Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS) researcher points out that there are multiple potential pollutants in the soil, they are absorbed by different crops to varying degrees, and pollution can't be measured with a single indicator. Without a standard for contamination, it's impossible to judge which sites are polluted. "Without criteria for interpreting the data, what do the numbers really tell us?" asked the CAAS researcher.

Although they declined to release statistics, the state council made a statement in October 2012 calling attention to the contamination of soil by industry, mining, agriculture and household waste. Experts have stitched together fragmentary information to characterize the situation. Heavy metal contamination is the number one killer of soil and is more serious in regions south of the Yangtze River. The most concentrated pollution is in the Chengdu plain, and the Yangtze and Pearl River deltas. Parts of Yunnan, Guizhou, and Guangxi Provinces are heavily contaminated, especially around chemical, electroplating and pesticide factories. Heavy metal pollution is gradually strengthening, covering a widening area, and includes an increasing range of elements. Cadmium, mercury and lead are the most common pollutants. One Chinese expert who has been doing soil testing since the 1980s remarked that problems are getting worse and pollutants include organic pollutants, pesticides, plasticizers, as well as heavy metals.

A study in the Journal of Immigrant and Refugee Studies found elevated levels of lead, cadmium, and mercury in the blood of mainland Chinese immigrants to New York. The study also found the Chinese immigrants were less fat and had good HDLs, which the study speculated could be due to their consumption of vegetables and seafood. The study noted that cadmium and lead persist in the body for decades and could have come from exposure when they were in China. The study caused an uproar in China, and a dark joke circulating in online forums said that Chinese people could set off airport metal detectors even when unclothed due to the high levels of heavy metals in their bodies.

Again demonstrating its practice of reacting to problems rather than solving them, the government announced a new soil survey in June following the negative publicity about cadmium contamination of rice in May. This survey is reportedly using a more dense sampling scheme, but there has been no commitment to publicize the results. The South China Morning Post reported that some Chinese scientists were skeptical about the vague details given about the study's design. One researcher asked why there wasn't a follow-up to the "secret" survey instead of starting over with a new one.

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