Despite contaminants found on campus, ill students and state TV exposé, school in China stays open
The relocation of the Changzhou Foreign Languages School to a new 153-acre campus last fall was supposed to mark a bright new era for the private institution, where many of the 2,500 seventh- through 12th-grade students aspire to attend college abroad.
But soon after the buildings opened in September, students noticed strange smells that some likened to rotten eggs and began complaining of cramps, skin ailments and other health problems.
Parents began to suspect the area may have been contaminated by chemical and pesticide factories that had once been located across the street. In January, classes were suspended for about two weeks while tests were conducted by provincial and city environmental authorities. Those checks found elevated levels of contaminants, though officials insisted the problem wasn’t serious.
But this week, state-run China Central Television aired an exposé reporting that the school in the city of Changzhou, about 670 miles southeast of Beijing, had knowingly been built on land rife with contamination. The CCTV report said 641 students had undergone physical examinations, with 493 diagnosed with illnesses including bronchitis, dermatitis, lymphoma and leukemia.
Although the report did not detail how many cases of each disease were found, it quoted experts as saying the ailments were probably linked to chloroform, benzene and other toxic substances in the soil and water.
National outrage has ensued. As government ministries announced investigations, environmental groups pounced on the report as yet another example of China’s insufficient enforcement of ecological standards.
“The tragedy that has occurred in Changzhou shows just how dangerously lax China’s hazardous chemical management is,” said Ada Kong, manager of Greenpeace East Asia’s toxins campaign.
Despite what seems like a robust official reaction, the school has remained open. A woman in the admissions department who answered the phone Tuesday said the school was functioning as normal and “all the students were well.”
On its website, the school posted a message saying that two companies had collected air, soil and groundwater samples at the school in late March and that both firms found the levels of toxic substances including formaldehyde, benzene, toluene and xylene to be below national limits. The message said the soil and groundwater “satisfy the school environment criteria.”
Former employees of the chemical factories interviewed on camera by CCTV said they had buried toxic materials nearby and released untreated wastewater into waterways.
After the factories were closed about six years ago, the network reported, a government study found the areas contaminated with extreme levels of toxic substances, including chlorobenzene concentrations 78,899 times the permitted levels in soil and 94,799 times the permitted levels in groundwater.
Carbon tetrachloride levels were found to be 22,699 times the national limits. That study also found elevated levels of lead, cadmium and mercury.
Changzhou authorities, who at one point had considered turning the area into an “ecological park,” gave the school permission to relocate there anyway, according to the television report.
The network said tests conducted for its investigation revealed alarming amounts of toxic substances in the soil and groundwater at the school. Pan Xiaochuan, a professor of public health at Peking University, told CCTV that there were “absolutely” carcinogens on the campus and that long exposure to them could cause cancer.
Parents have staged protests outside local government offices, demanding answers and accountability. Some held signs reading, “Get away from toxic land!”
Greenpeace called on the government to investigate why the campus was allowed to be built and to establish a comprehensive hazardous chemicals management system to prevent a repeat of the situation elsewhere.
“Polluted school” has become a hot topic on the Chinese Internet, with more than 45 million views on the Sina Weibo microblog platform. “It almost took half a year to get this tragedy exposed,” one user wrote. “There’s so much hiding! Suppressing! Covering up! This is so serious!”
But some students took to the Web to defend the school and play down the concerns.
One wrote: “I don’t know whether the experts were telling the truth, but I’ve been drinking water here for more than half a year and I’m fine. And I know there hasn’t been any case of serious illness here.”
Besides CCTV, other Chinese media have also reported on contaminants near the school. Students at the adjacent Changzhou Trina International School had complained of ailments in 2014, according to Modern Express, a newspaper that is part of the official New China News Agency.
Yingzhi Yang and Nicole Liu of The Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.
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