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Report on Changzhou Pollution Raises Doubts

People jog past the Pudong Financial District shrouded with fog and pollution at the Shanghai Bund in Shanghai, China, Thursday, April 14, 2016.

One week after a comprehensive investigation was launched, local authorities in Jiangsu province have released a preliminary report which claimed the air, soil and underground water in the vicinity of Changzhou Foreign Language School have met national standards.

But many parents remain skeptical because Tuesday’s report also confirmed that 247 students from the middle school have been diagnosed with thyroid nodules, albeit the cause of their illness was unknown. Without further explanations, the report added that another 35 students have suffered lymphadenopathy due to infection.

For the first time, officials in the city of Changzhou have finally acknowledged that claims of massive illness weren’t groundless.

Prior to that, school and government officials reiterated that only four of the school’s 2,451 students and three of its 210-member were on sick leave at that time.

They had repeatedly dismissed the state-owned CCTV’s report last week, which said that 493 students from the school have fallen ill, diagnosed with dermatitis, bronchitis and blood cell deficiencies, as well as a few cases of cancer including lymphoma and leukemia.

The state media then concluded that the school shouldn’t have been built on the “toxic plot of land,” citing an environmental assessment report released prior to its construction last year.

A pollution scare has since erupted locally and nationwide.

Massive illness confirmed

In response to the government’s latest report, the mother of an eighth grader remains convinced her son’s symptoms were linked to extremely high levels of groundwater and soil pollution near the school, which is adjacent to the sites of three former pesticide plants including the local arm of Shenzhen Noposion Agrochemicals Company, one of China’s largest pesticide makers.

She wrote on her Weibo social media account that her son, last Friday, was diagnosed with nodules on the left side of his thyroid and lymph nodes on both sides of his neck – symptoms that were unfound in his physical checkup in mid-Feb. “[My son] has fallen ill in only two months. Who dares to say that the school’s environment has done no harm to [his health]!” she wrote.

Another parent showed VOA a conversation on the social media platform QQ Chat, on which, the mother of a patient with an extreme case of lymphoma clarified that her child was diagnosed with the cancer in February.

That was contrary to local media reports, which cited government sources as saying the cancer case had nothing to do with chemical exposure as it was confirmed in September of last year before the school year began.

One mother, moreover, posted a long letter on her Weibo account accusing the local government of attempting to cover up the incident.

“Please give our children a toxic-free classroom,” she wrote, detailing her efforts to seek help from the government in the past five months.

In response, local police had ended up questioning and exerting pressure on her husband and several other parents after they staged a 13-hour protest in front of the school in mid-January, she said.

Last Friday, 15 out of 16 students in her child’s class were diagnosed with lymphadenopathy symptoms, she wrote, expressing her grave worries.

Further investigations needed

Given the investigation results’ inconsistency, Greenpeace East Asia toxics campaigner Cheng Qian found the parents' suspicions and worries justified.

“We think there is [a] very strong linkage between the contamination [and the site] as well as what we see the health consequences that happen to the school students,” she said.

However, she added that “the correlational relationship requires further investigation especially more like health risk assessment needs to be done.”

But Yu Bojun, head of the school’s Parents Association, expressed a mixed reaction.

As the health of his ninth grade child remains intact, Yu threw a certain degree of support behind the government’s latest investigation results.

Yet he insisted that no students’ health should be compromised if the school is proved to be located in a contaminated plot of land.

“If the final results of scientific tests conclude that the school is sitting on a toxic plot of land and the students’ health is at stake, I believe the school will consider to relocate,” Yu said, taking a neutral stance toward the petition lodged by some other parents.

Yu added that he will keep a close eye on the investigation as his own family’s health is concerned since he himself lives close to the school.

Chemical management

To avoid a similar incident, Greenpeace’s Cheng urged the local government to look into the root cause of the potential contamination and ensure the investigation’s transparency as experts warned that earlier environmental tests have overlooked the possible contamination of pesticides.

The government’s report gave no details if tests for pesticides on the school’s environment have been run in the past week.

The environmental activist group argued the incident in Changzhou is another reminder of the seriousness of China’s chemical pollution and exposes gaping holes in the country’s management of hazardous materials.

“If you look at what could possibly be the root causes, then, the chemical risk is really severe because we have been long neglecting to scrutinize as well as to regulate how chemicals should be managed in an integrated and a preventive way,” she said, adding that the chemical industry should be held accountable if it is to be blamed for the contamination.

The city government further ruled that four accounts of negligence have been determined. For example, the school had moved into the new site before the government completed its soil neutralization work there. Meanwhile, no precautionary measures were taken to safeguard the health of school’s faculty and students when the soil neutralization work was in progress.

It has vowed to get to the bottom of the alleged pollution incident while taking action against those who should be held responsible, according to its statement.