Macau Matters | Cadmium Rice

Richard Whitfield

The June 10 issue of The Economist contains a terrifying article about pollution in China. It makes the point that air, water and land pollution across China, in major cities and in farmland, is very bad. This means that in Macau we need to be especially careful of the quality of food supplies coming from China (and other Asian countries that possibly have similar problems).

This problematic situation has arisen for several reasons. Industrial complexes were initially sited in “remote” locations and when they were developed the existing safety and environmental regulations were very weak and even more weakly enforced. Consequently there have been many toxic spills over time that were never properly cleaned up. Even now many industrial complexes far from urban centers are still polluting their neighborhoods with the tacit approval of local officials who rely on the employment and taxation associated with them.

Smelting activities, especially, have resulted in a lot of heavy metals pollution. Cadmium, Lead, Arsenic and other such smelting wastes are very toxic and lead to major life threatening health problems in the long term. The bodies of most plants and animals cannot eliminate heavy metals so they accumulate and cause increasingly severe health problems. The article cites examples of rice being grown for sale that contains 50 percent more than the legal limits of cadmium. Similarly, pressures to increase crop yields because of population increases and the loss of farmland to urbanization have resulted in widespread over use of fertilizers and pesticides thus polluting more land.

With urbanization, industrial complexes that were initially sited in “remote” locations are now being enveloped by suburbs. Many local governments in China stay solvent by selling land for residential and commercial development, and recycling industrial land without properly cleaning up pollution can sometimes be too easy. There are increasing examples of severe health problems arising for people at schools, residential complexes and other buildings constructed on polluted ground.

There are also severe water shortages in northern China, as indicated by government plans for large scale water diversions from south to north China. As a consequence, many northern farmers are resorting to using “grey” water, ie only partially processed residential and industrial waste water, for their crops and animals. This is resulting in even more polluted land and contaminated crops.

Studies suggest that 10 percent – 20 percent of all arable land in China is currently severely polluted and should not be used for agriculture. “Cleaning” this polluted ground is very expensive – in the UK they spent £3,000/m3 cleaning old industrial ground so it could be used for the Olympics.

The article shows a map of 400-450 “cancer cities” in China where a 2015 study found a correlation between soil pollution and elevated cancer rates in the population. Seven of these cities look to be in the Pearl River Delta, and the whole area is identified as having high soil contamination risk.

Clearly there are soil and other pollution problems in China that are leading to contaminated food production. I suspect that other South East Asian countries have similar problems, so that in Macau we need to be especially careful of food imported from nearby regions. I understand that food contamination testing is done regularly, but I am concerned that not all potential contaminants are being tested for, and that the frequency of testing is too low so that contaminated food can “slip through the net”.

Can the relevant local government department please explain in detail the measures being taken to test imported food in Macau and satisfy us that it is all safe? I really do not want to die from cancer brought on by eating cadmium contaminated rice.

Categories Opinion