Sean of our East Asia Action and Investigations Unit in China, blogs on how toxic pollution from China's textile industry is destroying local lives - from his first hand experience.
I always avoid going on field investigations with the toxics team, unless it’s absolutely necessary. It’s not that I mind the hard work, or am afraid of coming into contact with toxic substances. What I fear is quickly losing hope about the work I do.
I prefer traveling with the forest team, because even in deforested areas, there are still small patches of trees with green leaves growing around the edges. Or with the food and agriculture team, because among the paddies of gentically engineered crops at least we get to see organic fields where farmers grow the food that they eat themselves. I also prefer going out on ocean projects, because the vast sea offers peace of mind.
However, doing field research with the toxics team, all I see and feel is filth - nothing else. Even if I close my eyes, I can smell the stench of food processing, the stench of rotting organic waste from paper mills, the stench of polyvinyl chloride from plastic factories, the stench of synthetic chemicals from clothing manufacturers.
I think about how all the products generated in this awful environment will be consumed and used by us, how all these dirty objects will enter the air we breathe and circulate through the Earth’s systems, and immediately it feels like the circle of life has been arrested amongst the madness of human productivity and consumption.
One morning, I went to investigate a discharge pipe to document and collect samples of pollutants secretly being emitted by a textile mill. I had to work with the utmost secrecy in order to avoid being discovered by the textile mill. (It’s always like this in China: doing right must be done in secret.)
I dipped a long measuring pole into the large polluting pipe to gauge the volume of polluted water being emitted. But the surface of the water, covered in oil and filth, made me feel as if mildew was growing all over my face. On top of that, with dirty water splashing onto my mask, I had to resist the urge to vomit.
All of a sudden, I felt someone hit me on my back. It startled me so much that I almost fell into the water. I grasped the pole and looked behind me to see an old man standing there. He asked: "Can you catch fish here?" I realised that he thought I was holding a fishing pole, so I kept calm and said: "Yes, I heard that there’s a kind of small fish living in this water, and it has medicinal benefits."
The old man grew quite curious and replied: “That may be. If a fish can survive in water as dirty as this, it must have a lot of resistance. So it wouldn’t be too strange if such fish had medicinal benefits."
It was clear he was just passing by, so I answered: "Yeah, survival of the fittest. Fish that adapt can survive, just like us humans."
He replied: "For more than 10 years, I’ve exercised every morning. And every day I adapt to the sight of polluted water flowing out of this big pipe. I used to buy fish from fishermen’s boats nearby. But those boats are long gone. Now we go to the supermarket to buy fish, so it didn’t affect us much. However, one day the pipe suddenly stopped discharging the waste water, so thinking that something really bad was about to happen, those of us who go out every morning for exercise went to the police to report it."
He kept talking to me and didn’t want to leave. He wanted to see whether or not I would catch the small fish with medicinal benefits.