Nearly 500 students at a prestigious high school in the eastern Chinese province of Jiangsu have fallen ill, some with cancer and other rare diseases, with environmental experts blaming "dangerously lax" management of environmental waste.
The high rate of sickness at the Changzhou Foreign Languages School, according to an expose run on Sunday by state broadcaster CCTV, is likely due to extremely high levels of groundwater and soil pollution from toxic chemicals dumped nearby by a chemical factory.
Parents at the school said they have been campaigning for weeks to bring public attention to their children's illnesses.
"We have been trying to stand up for our rights for a while now, and we have been in contact with the school about it, but they want nothing to do with us," the mother of one of the students, surnamed Zhang, told RFA.
"We have had no response from the school, other than their view that the site meets [environmental] standards," she said.
"Now, we are just thinking of moving away from this place as soon as possible, so our kid doesn't have to be exposed to this poisoned soil and continue to get sick from it," Zhang said.
At least 493 students had tested positive for abnormal blood parameters or diseases ranging from dermatitis, eczema, bronchitis to leukemia and lymphoma, the CCTV report said.
The school moved to its newly commissioned campus last September, but the CCTV report said poisonous pesticides had been manufactured at three chemical plants near the site in the past, and pupils began to develop chronic coughs, headaches, rashes, vomiting and other symptoms soon after arrival.
Students at the school were still in class on Tuesday, with the exception of four or five from her children's class, Zhang said.
"[My kid] was diagnosed with a facial rash and thyroid nodules, but the doctor didn't say anything about the cause, because the government has already implemented measures in the hospitals," she said.
"Some hospitals refused to see us at all," Zhang said.
According to the environmental group Greenpeace, the Changzhou Foreign Languages School is located next to the site of a former chemicals plant.
"The environmental evaluation conducted before the construction of the school suggested that pollution was serious and advised that schools, housing or other public facilities should not be constructed in the area," the group said in a statement on its website.
It said the chemicals reportedly found in groundwater and soil at the site include chloroform and benzene, both of which are listed on China’s list of hazardous chemicals, and are known to have serious health, including carcinogenic properties, and environmental impacts.
"The school was also reportedly using groundwater that was deemed unfit for human use by the environmental evaluation," it said, saying that a more comprehensive environmental assessment is needed.
"The tragedy that has occurred in Changzhou shows just how dangerously lax China’s hazardous chemical management is," Greenpeace East Asia toxics campaign manager Ada Kong said.
A vow to investigate
Changzhou municipal government issued a statement on Monday vowing to investigate the problem, but saying the number of students sickened at the school was "far fewer" than reported by CCTV.
An official who answered the phone at the Changzhou government offices on Tuesday declined to comment.
"You will have to speak to the press office to get a unified statement on this matter," the official said.
An official who answered the phone at the municipal education bureau also referred queries to the municipal press office.
But calls to the number supplied for the press office resulted in a fax tone during office hours on Tuesday.
Media reports said the state environmental protection agency and the Jiangsu provincial government have sent a task-force to the site to investigate further.
Environmental activist Wu Lihong said China is no stranger to massive pollution scandals.
"In China, the environmental protection department is nicknamed the pollution protection department, because it's actually responsible for allowing a lot of the pollution by protecting polluting enterprises," Wu said.
"This case in Changzhou is certainly not a one-off," he said.
Lack of checks and balances
Jiangsu rights activist Wu Shiming said the problems stem from a lack of checks and balances on the power of ruling Chinese Communist Party officials.
"There are strong links between government and business in many locations, because of a lack of scrutiny of state power," Wu Shiming said. "In the end, it’s the ordinary people who suffer."
"The pollution at this school is a tremendous cause for concern, but it happened because the channels for ordinary people to report such things aren't effective," he said.
"That's why disasters like this happen," he said.
China's Ministry of Water Resources reported last week that more than 80 percent of groundwater in China is unfit for human consumption, based on its monitoring of major river systems and thousands of artesian wells.
Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Qiao Long for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.