Orchards in the northern Chinese province of Hebei have produced a crop of black apples this year amid growing complaints over pollution from extensive mining in the area, farmers said this week.
Farmers in Hebei's Tumu village, which lies just 2.5 kilometers (1.6 miles) from one of the biggest open-cast mining districts in severely polluted northern China, say there is little to protect their crops from airborne dirt and dust from the mines.
"We grow fruit orchards over here, but nobody wants to grow fruit any more," a farmer in Huailai county, which oversees Tumu village, told state media in a recent interview.
"There's no way to sell it," he said. "Who wants it if it's polluted?"
"Take apples, for example. They are all black around the hollow of the stalk. Who's going to buy them?"
A Huailai resident surnamed Hou said many local farmers had tried to petition the authorities with complaints about pollution from nearby mines, but to no avail.
"There are a lot of instances of corruption," she said. "There are coal mines and iron ore mines."
"I know a lot of people have tried petitioning over this, and that there is pollution," she said.
"But the authorities don't send anyone to sort it out. They have laws, but they don't follow them," Hou said. "There is no punishment for breaking the law."
Worst air quality
Li Yulian, a petitioner from nearby Zhangjiakou city, said the worst air quality was found in the mining district to the south of the city.
"Where I live, to the north, the air is very good, with blue sky and white clouds," she said. "That's because there aren't really many factories to pollute it."
"To the south of Zhangjiakou, in Huailai county, there is a great deal of pollution from mining dust, while in Xuanbei county it's stone dust pollution," Li said.
An official who answered the phone at the Zhangjiakou environmental protection bureau said he was unaware of the problem, however.
"We don't have a special department for receiving cases, or a reporting center [for violations of environmental law], so I'm not sure what issues the local people are reporting with regard to pollution," the official said.
"You should get in touch with the propaganda department for the details, and they'll give you a unified answer," he said.
China has promised major steps to improve air quality as smog and greenhouse gas emissions continue to plague the country, cloaking much of the northern regions in thick brown smog.
The State Council last week announced a package of 10 anti-pollution measures to ease the crisis, including a pledge to slash pollution from six smog-producing industries by 2017, official media reported.
Officials hope the 2017 target will speed up improvements in the six dirtiest industries that account for more than 70 percent of China's emissions.
Atmospheric "particulate matter pollution” was the fourth-leading risk factor for deaths in China in 2010, ranking after dietary habits, high blood pressure, and smoking, according to data gathered for the 2010 Global Burden of Disease Study.
A recent study has linked China's air pollution to 1.2 million premature deaths in a single year.
Chinese consumers are reeling in the wake of a string of public health scandals affecting foodstuffs and medicines in recent years, including melamine-tainted infant formula milk, used "gutter" cooking oil, and tainted vaccines.
A report released on Tuesday by the international group Greenpeace said that commercially grown herbs for the traditional Chinese medicine market are now coated in a toxic cocktail of pesticide residues.
Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.