CHINA has admitted that its failure to control the use of hazardous chemicals has turned whole regions toxic and created "cancer villages".
In a five-year plan outlining the challenges facing the country's environment, the Beijing government conceded that rampant economic growth and reckless pollution had wrought a devastating toll on its people.
The plan said: "In recent years, toxic and hazardous chemical pollution has caused many environmental disasters, cutting off drinking water supplies and even leading to severe health and social problems such as 'cancer villages'."
Environmentalists have long campaigned for the government to recognise and help the hundreds of cancer clusters caused by poisoned soil, water or air.
Activists have suggested there may be as many as 400 such places nationwide, where toxic fumes and industrial waste have condemned villagers to a life of suffering and often death.
In several villages around Baiyin City, an industrial hub in northwest China, scientists have detected unusually high levels of lead, copper and cadmium in the ground and crops and believe this may be the cause of a mysterious illness affecting hundreds of local farmers.
Residents who live along the East Dagou canal complain of ailments, including severe leg pains.
"Of course, soil pollution is related to the pain we suffer," said Wei Kongyin (55), a resident of Minqin village.
"Just look at the soil. It is black, brown and reddish-purple. It should be light yellow."
As much as 10pc of farmland is polluted, according to some estimates. Experts believe the problem is as severe as the issue of air pollution in cities.
The Chinese magazine 'Caixin' echoed that verdict in a story entitled "The unbearable weight of the soil". It argued: "Since ancient times, Chinese people have described the land as their mother. Now, mother is sick."
Extraction of metals has taken place around Baiyin City for hundreds of years. Its name means 'silver'.
Farmers trace the problems along the East Dagou canal to the 1960s, when at least one mining company began dumping toxic waste into the waters they used for irrigation.
Mr Wei, a farmer, said people had often tasted the "black and brown" water before using it on their crops. "It would make our tongues so numb we could hardly speak," he said.
Chinese scientists are dedicating more resources to the problem, studying "soil remediation" methods ranging from burning polluted soil to using chemicals or plants to absorb contaminants. (© Daily Telegraph, London)