The hill of chemical waste beside Farmer Wu Shuliang’s rice paddy began to take shape in the 1990s.
“It was yellow and green and it smelled terrible," says Wu, standing on the edge of his rice paddy in rural Yunnan, in China's southwest. The waste was from a factory next door, a byproduct from making chemicals used for tanning leather.
Each day for 20 years, workers dumped more of it, making the hill bigger and bigger. Last year, an estimated 300 million pounds of chemical sludge towered over Wu’s land and the river below.
"Whenever it rained, our rice paddy and the river would suddenly turn bright yellow," Wu says. "Much of my rice died. It killed everything in its path."
Around the time the hill began to form, Wu and his wife had two sons. The two boys grew up bathing in the river that turned yellow when it rained, they breathed the dust that blew off of the hill on windy days, and the oldest son, Wu Wenyong, spent much of his childhood working the rice paddies in the hill’s shadow.
When he was 14, Wu Wenyong began having health problems. He couldn’t stop coughing, he had difficulty breathing, and his chest hurt.
"We heard on the local news that this hill might be harmful to our health, so we took our son to the hospital and asked the doctor whether it had anything to do with his health problems," remembers Wu's mother Qi Xianying. "The doctor didn’t say anything. He just shook his head."
This was in 2011.
At the time, the environmental NGO Greenpeace had traveled to Wu’s village here in rural Yunnan province to test the water in the rice paddies and wells surrounding the hill. The samples were high in Chromium-6, a known carcinogen. One water sample from Wu’s land showed the level of Chromium-6 was 240 times higher than what China and the U.S. allows in their drinking water.
“I would say that’s startlingly high," says U.C. Davis researcher Peter Green, who studies chromium’s impact on water. “Although some people can detoxify some amount of it, the amounts mentioned are very, very high and to me it’s not plausible that that could be detoxified by anyone.”
Wu Wenyong was in eighth grade when he was diagnosed with two types of cancer: leukemia and thymoma.
The doctor handed over the diagnosis report to the 14-year-old. Neither his father nor his mother can read.
“We didn’t understand what was going on, but as my son read the diagnosis, he seemed to understand how severe his cancer was," says Qi Xianying through tears. "I felt so guilty and so sad, but he had the strength to smile. He told me ‘Mom, don’t cry. I won’t be around to help farm the land anymore, but dad will help you. It’ll be all right.’”
Qi and her husband borrowed thousands of dollars from family and sold all of their cattle and sheep — everything they owned — to pay for Wu’s chemotherapy.
"It didn’t work. He would wake up with foam all over his mouth and he couldn’t settle down," says Qi, sobbing. "He was in so much pain. He finally asked me to open the window. He said ‘Just let me jump, mom.’”
On Feb. 16, 2012, Wu Wenyong died in his hospital bed. He was 15.
“There are a lot of sad stories of pollution victims all over China," says Ma Tianjie, who works for Greenpeace China.
In a recent trip to Xinglong, the village where the Wu family lives, Ma found at least 30 other villagers among 500 who had been diagnosed with cancer. Even the government has started referring to these places as cancer villages.
In 2009, Chinese journalist Deng Fei published a map highlighting a number of China's 'cancer villages.' Stella Xie translated this version of the map.
View China's Cancer Vilages in a larger map
Officials are worried, because villages like these supply China with its food.
"I think the implications are significant," Ma says. "A lot of these heavy metals will be accumulated in food crops grown near the pollution site."
Five years ago, a soil survey taken from rice in three of China’s largest agricultural provinces shocked Chinese consumers.
Sixty percent of the rice samples showed excessive amounts of cadmium, a heavy metal that causes bone and kidney damage. At the time, Chinese scientists openly discussed the widespread contamination of China’s food supply. But these days, they’re not talking. Several scientists declined interviews with Marketplace. That’s because late last year, China’s communist party declared national soil surveys ‘state secrets.’
Revealing China’s ‘state secrets’ can send you to prison.
American scientist Peter Green says in the case of Chromium-6, which polluted the soil in Xinglong Village, it’s undoubtedly been absorbed by the rice grown there.
"Rice, like all plants, takes up water from its roots," Green says, "and Chromium-6 — hexavalent chromium — is very soluble in water, and will get into the plants. And that’s unfortunate, because it can get into the food chain and be eaten by humans or perhaps other animals.”
Back in Xinglong village, the 300-million-pound hill of Chromium-6 waste is now gone. The company that created it, LuLiang Peace Technology, removed the waste a few months ago. But farmer Wu Shuliang says his well water is still contaminated. I ask him to show me.
Wu grabs a 10-foot long stick and dips it down into the well.
When he pulls it up, the end of the stick is covered with a thick, mustard-yellow chemical sludge.
Marketplace contacted LuLiang Peace Technology, and the factory manager, Mr. Qian, spoke to us. After we told him we were a news organization, he hung up and didn’t answer any more calls. The local government also ignored Marketplace’s repeated requests for interviews.
Farmers Qi Xianyi and Wu Shuliang still grow rice in the yellow contaminated water they pump from their well. Their family doesn’t dare eat it.
Instead, they sell it to others.
"We don’t have a choice," says Qi. "We lost all our money paying the medical bills for our son. Now he’s dead, and we’re broke. We know the rice is dangerous. We sell it to vendors from other provinces in China who travel here to purchase it."
And those vendors sell this contaminated rice throughout China. The situation seems hopeless, but lately there have been encouraging developments.
A week ago, a top official of China’s Ministry of the Environment said the soil survey currently deemed ‘a state secret’ will soon be released to the public.
A local judge has also agreed to review the case of Luliang Peace Technology’s contamination of Xinglong Village. If the judge rules against the factory, millions of dollars would be set aside for villagers like the Wu family who have lost loved ones.
But Qi says the ruling may come too late for her family. Her father-in-law is dying. And her 12-year-old son has recently developed a chronic cough that sounds like his brother's before he got cancer.
The problem is, Qi says, her family has so much debt from treating her first son’s cancer that now they can’t afford to bring their remaining son to the doctor for help.