Zhang Manzhu’s daughter is a seventh-grader at Changzhou Foreign Languages School. Last December, her daughter’s face broke out in a rash, and lumps appeared on her neck. “I thought it was just the arrival of spring that caused it,” Zhang said. “But other parents said their children had similar symptoms.”
Zhang’s daughter is one of many students who came home from school with various illnesses. Of the 641 students who have gone in for medical tests, 493 had illnesses varying from eczema, bronchitis, and headaches, to a lack of white blood cells, and in a few cases even lymphoma and leukemia, according to media reports.
A rash on a student’s shoulder, Changzhou, Jiangsu province, Jan. 2016. Courtesy of the student’s parent
The location of the school is to blame, their parents say. The school building is new – it opened in September 2015 – and sits next to the former sites of three chemical factories, which allegedly contaminated the surrounding soil and groundwater.
The story received widespread attention after a report broadcast Sunday by China Central Television (CCTV), China’s state-owned television network.
According to CCTV, work began on the new location of Changzhou Foreign Languages School in 2011, a full seven months before the results of a test conducted on behalf the education bureau in Changzhou on the suitability of the land were released.
That analysis, though far from extensive, found pollutants in the groundwater and soil at the site and recommended against developing or using groundwater resources. However, a worker at the school told CCTV that water used at the school was nevertheless being pumped directly from the ground.
The recent spike in media attention belies the fact that the story has been developing for a long time. In January, the school organized a meeting with aggrieved parents during which the secretary of the Changzhou municipal government promised to clean up the site before the new semester.
When students returned to school on Feb. 22 after the Chinese New Year vacation, parents found that the soil at the site had been covered with clay. Angered, many parents, including Zhang, then petitioned the school to move to another site farther away from the polluted land.
A view of the toxic site which used to be a chemical factory next to the new campus of Changzhou Foreign Languages School in Changzhou, Jiangsu province, April 18. 2016. IC
The following day, police visited Zhang at home and persuaded her to stop petitioning. Zhang told Sixth Tone in a telephone interview that one of the parents was locked up for 10 days by local police because he commissioned an environmental report that showed the levels of many pollutants far surpassed national standards.
CCTV reported that the level of several potentially harmful chemicals were far in excess of the national average.
Many students have already transferred to other schools. But Changzhou Foreign Languages School has a good reputation, and students like Zhang’s daughter worked hard to be admitted. This and the effort needed to find a new school make parents like Zhang reluctant to transfer.
But even requests by parents for makeshift classrooms farther from the former factory site have fallen on deaf ears. “The local government and school never talk about doing anything to cope with the pollution,” Zhang said.
The entrance to the new campus of Changzhou Foreign Languages School in Changzhou, Jiangsu province, April 18. 2016. IC
A father, surnamed Sun, told Sixth Tone that his son also attends Changzhou Foreign Languages School. Recent blood tests on the boy worried Sun. He declined to discuss the details of his son’s health.
Sun is among the many parents who are unhappy with the government’s attempt to clean up the site simply by covering it with a layer of clay. “How can they ignore sick children as if nothing has happened?” Sun told Sixth Tone.
On Monday afternoon in a statement to Sixth Tone’s sister publication The Paper, the Changzhou government said that the soil and groundwater around the school were not polluted, and that experts had assessed the air quality as having met standards. It added that out of the nearly 2,500 students at the school, only four were currently on sick leave, and five were in the process of transferring to another school.
The government said that to its knowledge none of the school’s students had ever contracted leukemia, and that there had only been one case of lymphoma, but that this had been diagnosed before the school moved to its new campus.
“The school is operating normally,” the statement said.
Sun, the concerned parent, urged: “Don’t make our children a sacrifice in the struggle between parents, the school, and the government.”
This article has been updated to reflect the Changzhou government's comments about leukemia and lymphoma cases.
Additional reporting by Peng Wei.
(Header image: An aerial photo shows the new campus of Changzhou Foreign Languages School next to the former site of three chemical factories in Changzhou, Jiangsu province, April 18, 2016. IC)