Rules to ban arsenic tightened
An official of the Ministry of Health said on Thursday that China will provide safe drinking water and safe stoves for the 500,000 people affected by arsenic poisoning by 2006.
By 2010, when the distribution map of arsenic poisoning is completed, all afflicted populations should be provided safe drinking water and safe stoves.
Xiao Donglou, deputy director of the ministry's disease control department, clarified the timetable at the International Conference on Water Quality and Arsenic Mitigation held here.
Long-term consumption of arsenic, through water or air, can lead to skin cancer and ultimately death. It was not until 1986 that arsenicosis was first officially diagnosed in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in Northwest China. During the 1990s, cases were diagnosed in Inner Mongolia, Shanxi, Jilin, Qinghai, Ningxia, and Liaoning, with a total affected population of 500,000.
Farmers, especially those in the poverty-stricken rural areas, have drilled tens of millions of medium to deep wells which often tap into arsenic-rich aquifers, thereby exposing increasing rural populations to chronic arsenic poisoning.
In Guizhou Province, the disease has been also caused mainly by burning coal because local villagers use the arsenic-rich coal for cooking, heating and drying local staple foods such as corn and hot peppers.
The Chinese Government started to drill safe wells and equip old stoves with chimneys beginning in 2002. According to Xiao, 240 villages have safe wells and 2,896 households have safe stoves.
"China is making a significant difference," said Vanessa Tobin, in charge of water security from the United Nation's Children's Fund (UNICEF) New York headquarters.
"The hardest problem is the low awareness of the disease of local people," said Xiao.
For many times, medical workers painted the hand-pumps of arsenic-rich wells red to distinguish those wells from the safe ones. The villagers, however, still fetched drinking water from them after the team went away.
Xiao said the Ministry of Health plans to inform 85 per cent of elementary and middle school students and 70 per cent of housewives about arsenic poisoning.
Henk Bekedam, the World Health Organization's representative to China, suggested that local medical workers and village-level officials should also receive training in preventative measures.
Christian Voumard, UNICEF's representative to China, said the initiative should not forget children: the group most vulnerable to the disease.
Statistics from the Ministry of Health show that children account for one-fifth of the total population affected by arsenic poisoning.
According to Wang Sanxiang, head of Endemic Prevention Centre of Shanxi Province, excessive consumption of arsenic could damage children's intellectual development and their nervous systems. Even if they get rid of arsenic sources immediately, there is still possibility the children may suffer from mental retardation years later.
"Prevention is the only solution since there is no cure," said Tobin.