Heshan: a poisonous legacy
By Jason Lee
Heshan, a village with a population of about 1,500 in China’s Hunan province, is sometimes given the grim label: “cancer village”.
Located some 1,200 kilometers (770 miles) from Beijing it stands in an area rich in realgar, or arsenic disulphide.
Factories and mines sprang up to process this precious resource but they were shut down in 2011 because of the pollution they caused. It seems that even now, the consequences have not gone away: Heshan residents say that many have died from cancer caused by arsenic poisoning.
After making the long journey to document life in the village, I found myself in front of a vast, green cornfield and a clear river. Everything looked normal, and I wasn’t sure if I had come to the right place.
But after randomly knocking on the door of Xiong Demin and his wife Wen Jin’e, who both suffer from cancer, I realized how hard life is for some of Heshan’s residents.
Xiong, 71, worked for years as a mechanic at a realgar mine, wearing no gloves or masks, until his retirement at 50. In 2012, he had an operation for skin cancer, which then spread to his lungs.
Wen, 65, was diagnosed with skin cancer which quickly spread to her cervix. She raised her shirt and pulled down her belt to show me a huge scar left on her belly from surgery in 2011.
Wen married into this village decades ago and has spent many years living near factories that process realgar.
According to state media, research from the 1990s showed that levels of arsenic in the mining area close to Heshan was as much as 15 times the amount that the Chinese government rules safe for farmland.
These pollutants can be deadly. The World Health Organization reports that arsenic and inorganic arsenic compounds – used to make things like herbicides and wood preservatives – are carcinogens; they can cause skin, bladder or lung cancer.
Heshan villagers have written a letter to the local government, in which they said that in 2010, 157 locals from the village of about 1,500 had died of cancer from arsenic poisoning over the previous two decades. They said another 190 had developed cancer from arsenic poisoning. When contacted by Reuters about this story, an official named Tan at Baiyun township government, which is in charge of Heshan, did not comment.
Wen and Xiong built a two-storey house in the village, hoping to spend their old age there peacefully, with their family around them. But that dream never materialized. The couple’s children have left and started their own families in other places.
“They live a difficult life too, and I’d rather they stay far away from here.” Xiong said. Many other younger residents have moved away to avoid the pollution.
Xiong and Wen say they have each received 10,000 yuan ($1,600) from the local government for treatment, but Wen said it wasn’t enough to cover one round of chemo or radiotherapy.
Over the next two days, I visited six families who were severely affected by arsenic poisoning. The family members were all suffering from skin cancer, while some had cancer in other internal organs too.
82-year-old Qin Wenji looked perfectly okay when I met him. But after learning the purpose of my visit, he took off his trousers to show me a golf ball-sized tumor on the skin near his testicles.
He said the tumor feels itchier and creates more discharge in summer, so he sometimes has to change pants several times a day. But Qin decided not to remove it through surgery, which could spread cancerous cells to his internal organs and turn his illness more deadly.
I am no stranger to death and during my coverage of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, I was witness to huge-scale tragedy. But this was the first time I saw people who lived as though they had a sword hanging over their heads all the time – the desperation and hopelessness were unimaginable.
Some villagers, including the 60-year-old mother of a woman I met named Gong Yuqiu, could not stand the pain and chose to end their own lives.
Gong said that 15 years ago black dots started to grow on her mother’s fingers. The dots later grew into big tumors, and four of her fingers were amputated, but that didn’t stop the spread.
Gong, a bladder cancer victim herself, could still clearly remember her mother’s crying at night.
“In the end, my mother drank a bottle of liquid which she said was ‘wine’, then she passed away. I don’t think it was wine, but there’s no way to find out now.”
During my time in Heshan, some middle-aged villagers came to me and showed me the black dots on their bodies, possible cancer symptoms, they said. The dots were growing bigger year after year.
With people here suffering so much from disease, I asked 69-year-old skin cancer patient Gong Zhaoyuan if he kept any photos of deceased relatives.
He sighed: “I rarely keep them. Having suffered and been tortured by the disease for so long, the relationships between family members become flat. What’s gone is gone, why keep it to make myself sad?”
Maybe sometimes, pain is even more frightening than death.