China probes school built on toxic site as hundreds of pupils fall ill

China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection opened an investigation yesterday after nearly 500 students at a school built on a toxic site were diagnosed with serious illnesses including leukemia.

Doctors examining 641 students attending Changzhou Foreign Languages School in Jiangsu province diagnosed 493 with a variety of serious conditions.

Changzhou Foreign Languages School in Jiangsu (From the school’s website)

The school had relocated in September last year to a facility built on a site formerly occupied by three pesticide factories which routinely dumped highly toxic waste to "save time and money", according to China Daily.

The spate of illnesses that flared among the pupils since then include leukemia, dermatitis, eczema, bronchitis and blood abnormalities. Around 2,450 teenagers attend the school.

The local government confirmed the new campus had been built on a site that had housed plants that produced highly toxic pesticides including carbofuran and methomyl.

According to China Daily, people who formerly worked in the factories said they had buried toxic chemicals near the plants "to save time and money". They also spoke of discharging untreated wastewater into rivers.

Staff and students had been complaining of foul smells since December 2015, and a soil restoration programme had been underway, according to reports.

But the affair got national attention yesterday following a report on state-run China Central Television (CCTV).

It said that an environmental report from 2012 showed that soil and nearby groundwater contained organic pollutants including chlorobenzene and carbon tetrachloride. Heavy-metal pollutants such as mercury, lead and cadmium were also found.

The concentrations of chlorobenzene in the groundwater and soil greatly exceeded normal levels, according to the report. The amount of chlorobenzene in the groundwater was 94,799 times normal. It was 78,899 times higher in the soil.

CCTV said professors specialising in environmental issues said the environmental assessment report that justified the construction of the new campus did not look for pesticides. They added that builders had used heavily polluted groundwater during the construction process.

Photograph: Changzhou Foreign Languages School in Jiangsu (From the school’s website)

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