By Paul Davies and Andrew Westgate

On Sunday, China Central Television (CCTV), the country’s state-run broadcast network, aired a report claiming that nearly 500 students apparently developed illnesses (including leukemia) at a school built on contaminated land. Of the 2,451 students that attend Changzhou Foreign Languages School in Jiangsu Province, 493 (one in five) were diagnosed with diseases including dermatitis, bronchitis, white blood cell deficiencies, and in a few cases, lymphoma or leukemia. The school, which opened last year, is located one block from a plot that was home to three chemical plants which were relocated in 2010. An investigative report from the financial journal Caixin quoted a former employee of one of the companies stating that it had buried toxic waste at the site, and regularly dumped waste into a river that flows into the Yangtze. Samples taken in 2012 show concentrations of chlorobenzene (a component of herbicides) 94,799 times greater than national groundwater standards, in addition to contamination with other toxic chemicals and heavy metals.

The report has received considerable attention on the internet, with a “contaminated school” discussion thread on social media chat site Weibo attracting 30 million views and 76,000 comments within a day after the report aired on CCTV. Reports state that parents across the country are concerned that such incidents could happen anywhere in China. In response to the report, the Ministry of Environmental Protection stated that it “attached great importance to the matter” and the Changzhou city government stated that it has “zero tolerance” for pollution, and will be taking prompt action.

Though overshadowed for many years by air and water issues, soil pollution has attracted increasing focus in China, particularly following a separate Caixin investigation which revealed that rice grown in Hunan, China’s top rice-producing province, was contaminated with cadmium. In 2014, a government survey conducted between 2006 and 2011 was released showing that one fifth of China’s agricultural land is contaminated. Lan Hong, a professor at Renmin University’s School of Environment and Natural Resources observed that “China has entered its Love Canal era.”

Soil pollution in the US and Europe

Love Canal is a neighborhood in Niagara Falls, New York, named after its founder who sought to build a canal between the upper and lower Niagara Rivers. The canal was never dug, and in the 1920s the three-block tract was used as a dump site for over 22,000 barrels of hazardous waste. In the 1950s, around 100 homes and school were constructed, and a working-class community developed. Then, in 1978, record rainfall resulted in an environmental disaster – chemicals leached to the surface causing trees to die and puddles of noxious chemicals to form. Residents complained of noxious odors and rashes, and were later found to have elevated white blood cell counts (a possible precursor to leukemia) and distressingly high rate of miscarriage, causing President Carter to declare a federal health emergency and evacuate families from the area. Love Canal became a powerful symbol for the dangers of industrial pollution, and is considered a key driver in the passage of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) or Superfund Act of 1980. Under CERCLA’s retroactive liability provisions, the company responsible for dumping the hazardous waste agreed to pay US$129 million in restitution.

Similarly, in the 1970s in Lekkerkerk, the Netherlands, a town was built on a former chemical waste dump. It took up to 15 years for some areas of the development to be deemed clear of soil contamination. The incident acted as a catalyst for the passing of soil pollution legislation in the Dutch courts.

Disasters to fast-track legislation

A similar legislative movement appears to be underway in China. Like the US, China has focused on tackling the challenges of air and water pollution, but contaminated land disasters have forced China to address the more complicated issues presented by soil. There is currently no equivalent to CERCLA at present, however this is now likely to change. A new national soil pollution law is actively being developed, and 10 drafts have reportedly been completed already. Yuan Si, vice-chairman of the Environment Protection and Resources Conservation Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC) Standing Committee, said that the law will be presented to the NPC in 2017. This timeline could well be accelerated in the aftermath of the Changzhou school incident.

This post was prepared with the assistance of Glen Jeffries in the New York office of Latham & Watkins.