China's polluted soil is a bigger problem than many realized. Photographer: Stephen Shaver/AFP/Getty Images
China's polluted soil is a bigger problem than many realized. Photographer: Stephen Shaver/AFP/Getty Images

Even the most choking of Beijing smogs eventually gives way to blue skies. The very impermanence of air pollution encourages optimism that it can be solved one day. The poisoning of China’s land and water is another matter altogether. Unlike smog, which can be seen the moment it leaves a smokestack, chemicals leaking from pipes into China’s soil and rivers may not be discovered for years or decades. By then, the damage may be incalculable and permanent.

Last week’s release of data collected during a nearly nine-year national soil survey finally gave Chinese a chance to evaluate the devastating toll that 30 years of rapid industrial development has had on them, their food supply, and their country. The numbers are astonishing. More than 16 percent of China’s 3.7 million square miles of soil is contaminated. Even worse, nearly a fifth of the country’s arable land is polluted. While the report doesn’t specify how badly, hints exist. In December, a senior Chinese official conceded that 2 percent of China’s arable land – an area the size of Belgium – had become too polluted to grow crops at all.

According to the report, the most common soil pollutants are inorganic in nature. They include nickel, arsenic, and highly toxic cadmium – all metals associated with industrial activity. Unfortunately, the report doesn’t reveal the benchmarks used to decide whether a soil sample qualifies as “polluted,” so it’s impossible to perform a comparative analysis with soil contamination in other countries.

Nonetheless, the fact that the Chinese government was willing to publicize these numbers is significant. As recently as last spring the Ministry of Environmental Protection denied a request to release the very same data to the public. No doubt authorities were concerned about how ordinary Chinese might react to the data, given already rampant fears about the safety of Chinese crops. They may also have feared that the real situation could be worse than that documented in the survey, which built its data set by taking one sample per every 6,400 hectares of land. Needless to say, it’s easy to miss contamination hot spots using such a methodology (likewise, it’s possible to oversample).

Unfortunately, the government’s change of heart only has only gone so far. The report does not reveal the specific locations of the many thousands of pollution hotspots identified over the last eight-and-a-half years. That’s the kind of information that can help an individual or community make life-extending decisions. Instead authorities have only offered broad stroke data that starts a conversation about soil pollution, but doesn’t offer any immediate benefit to anyone except local bureaucrats, who might otherwise be vilified for having allowed their districts to be polluted.

Already, there are calls for the central government to develop a soil remediation program that deals with the worst of the contamination. No doubt that will happen. But the truth is that no human effort will ever be able to clean up the millions of acres of China that have been contaminated over the decades. Rather, those poisoned acres will need to be managed and – most importantly – their condition and location disclosed to the Chinese public. The latter part of that process could, and should, start now.