Swimming in Poison: A hazardous chemical cocktail found in Yangtze River Fish

Feature Story - 2010-08-26
The Yangtze River flows through China's heartland, feeding 400 million people and providing drinking water to 186 cities. Yet this life-giving river is far from pristine. As a new Greenpeace report shows, its fish are tainted with hazardous chemicals - the result of ceaseless, unregulated industrial production.

A bustling fish market in Wuhan

Beijing, China - The Yangtze River flows through China's heartland, feeding 400 million people and providing drinking water to 186 cities. Yet this life-giving river is far from pristine. As a new Greenpeace report shows, its fish are tainted with hazardous chemicals - the result of ceaseless, unregulated industrial production.

Our campaigners took samples of two commonly eaten fish, catfish and carp, from four cities scattered along the Yangtze, ranging from upriver Chonging to Nanjing, near the eastern seaboard. Alarmingly, indepedent testing found that nearly all the sampled fish contained alkylphenols and perfluorinated compounds - synthetic chemicals that have no place in either wildlife, people, or the environment.

"These chemicals can mimic hormones, such as natural estrogens, or upset the normal functioning of the endocrine system in other ways. Alkylphenols act like 'gender-benders' and can cause altered sexual development in some species, most notably the development of female organs in male fish. Perfluorinated compounds have been associated with altered thyroid function and decreased sperm count in humans," said Yixiu Wu, toxics campaigner for Greenpeace East Asia.

Unfortunately, alkylphenols and perfluorinated compounds are quite common in many industrial processes: alkylphenols are used in detergents and in the textile and leather manufacturing process. Perfluorinated compounds provide a water- or grease-repellant coating in food-packaging and textiles, and are also part of cosmetics and plastic products. How many times have you been thankful for a pair of water-proof hiking boots, or a bag of microwave popcorn that doesn't get your clothes greasy?

The health risks of these chemicals have prompted European Union members and other countries to ban or restrict their use, but unfortunately, no similar action has yet taken place in China. The manufacturing of alkylphenols and perfluorinated compounds has fallen around the world, yet in China, their production is on the rise, doubling and quadrupling within the last decade.

"Wildlife and people will be increasingly exposed to these hazardous chemicals, especially if China does not immediately put a stop to their use and discharge," warned Wu.

Buried underground, the discharge pipes of this Anhui chemical factory secretly release wastewater into the Yangtze River at night.

This is especially troubling, as these hazardous chemicals are known to move up through the food chain, accumulating in organisms. They are also highly resistant to break down, and will stay in animals, people, and the environment for a long time. In particular, perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) - one of the key perfluorinated compounds Greenpeace found in the sampled fish - has been discovered in everything from giant pandas to polar bears. Past studies have also found PFOS in people from multiple countries, including in China.

PFOS is one of the nine new additions governed by the Stockholm Convention, an international treaty geared toward phasing out hazardous chemicals. China is one of the signatory nations, and today is the day that the nine new additions come into force.

Greenpeace would like to use this occasion to call upon the Chinese government to regulate, reduce, and ultimately eliminate the manufacture and use of hazardous chemicals, while replacing them with safer alternatives. This is a critical step to protect not only our rivers, but also the millions of people whose lives depend on them.

Find out more: Download our report, Swimming in Poison

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