China’s Toxic School Just the Tip of the Iceberg
China woke up to disturbing headlines on the morning of April 18: Nearly 500 children at a middle school in Jiangsu province had fallen sick, with illnesses ranging from bronchitis and eczema, to abnormalities in their blood and thyroid and in a few chilling cases, leukemia. The cause was highly suspected to be due to the fact that their new school campus was adjacent to the sites of three former chemical plants.
The news caused an uproar in China and hit headlines overseas. The story was shocking, but as details emerged, so did an all too familiar story. The soil and groundwater surrounding Changzhou Foreign Languages School was polluted with a highly toxic cocktail of industrial chemicals. Levels of Chlorobenzene, a toxic solvent that has been linked to liver and kidney problems, measured at close to 100,000 times what is considered safe.
China pesticide pollution blamed as hundreds of pupils fall ill https://t.co/mkFIBbF5pY https://t.co/8VS2OIBqhT— Greenpeace East Asia (@Greenpeace East Asia)1461033931.0
A Sickening Status Quo
This is far from an isolated case: Five days after the Changzhou incident was exposed, a chemical factory in the same province was ordered to shut down operations after 20 students fell sick; on the same day, a chemical blaze at a storage facility at the Yangtze River raged for 16 hours. One 26 year old firefighter lost his life and 15,000 nearby residents, not to mention valuable drinking resources, have been left at risk of potential contamination.
China chemical blaze extinguished, but the aftermath could impact thousands https://t.co/9OBVCnHaBx https://t.co/qevxISl5mK— Greenpeace East Asia (@Greenpeace East Asia)1461487249.0
For years, people in China’s densely populated east coast have been living in close quarters with polluting industries, especially chemical facilities. We’ve seen the impact that this has had on our air quality, but it’s also having a devastating effect on our soil and water supplies.
Following Changzhou, we investigated other potential "toxic" sites. In Jiangsu alone, we discovered four other sites that had previously housed chemical factories in close proximity to schools, residential areas and office buildings.
Prevention is Better Than Cure
Under China’s current chemicals management system, "toxic" sites like the Changzhou Foreign Languages school are ubiquitous and as China’s chemical industry transitions, they are likely to increase.
China’s chemicals management system needs nothing short of a complete overhaul and the first step is transparency.
China has one of the biggest chemicals industries in the world, but it lacks the stringent regulations seen in other countries like the EU and U.S.
Policy makers and chemical companies need to adopt the international practice of having a public database to track the release and transfer of chemicals, such as OECD’s PRTR system. Making this information publicly available will not only allow local authorities to make targeted efforts to protect public health from toxic chemicals, but in the case of an emergency, the firefighters and emergency responders will know exactly what they’re dealing with.
It will also provide the public with the right to know if they are living next door to a potentially dangerous toxic chemical storage facility.
What happened at Changzhou Foreign Languages school was an alarm bell, exposing the dangerous gaps in China’s chemicals management system. Introducing transparency into the system can put measures in place to ensure that incidents like Changzhou go from a routine occurrence to a relic of the past.
Cheng Qian is a toxics campaigner for Greenpeace East Asia.
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By Aaron W Hunter
A chance discovery of a beautifully preserved fossil in the desert landscape of Morocco has solved one of the great mysteries of biology and paleontology: how starfish evolved their arms.
The Pompeii of palaeontology. Aaron Hunter, Author provided<h2></h2><p>Although starfish might appear very robust animals, they are typically made up of lots of hard parts attached by ligaments and soft tissue which, upon death, quickly degrade. This means we rely on places like the Fezouata formations to provide snapshots of their evolution.</p><p>The starfish fossil record is patchy, especially at the critical time when many of these animal groups first appeared. Sorting out how each of the various types of ancient starfish relate to each other is like putting a puzzle together when many of the parts are missing.</p><h2>The Oldest Starfish</h2><p><em><a href="https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/216101v1.full.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Cantabrigiaster</a></em> is the most primitive starfish-like animal to be discovered in the fossil record. It was discovered in 2003, but it has taken over 17 years to work out its true significance.</p><p>What makes <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> unique is that it lacks almost all the characteristics we find in brittle stars and starfish.</p><p>Starfish and brittle stars belong to the family Asterozoa. Their ancestors, the Somasteroids were especially fragile - before <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> we only had a handful of specimens. The celebrated Moroccan paleontologist Mohamed <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.palaeo.2016.06.041" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Ben Moula</a> and his local team was instrumental in discovering <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0031018216302334?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">these amazing fossils</a> near the town of Zagora, in Morocco.</p><h2>The Breakthrough</h2><p>Our breakthrough moment came when I compared the arms of <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> with those of modern sea lilles, filter feeders with long feathery arms that tend to be attached to the sea floor by a stem or stalk.</p><p>The striking similarity between these modern filter feeders and the ancient starfish led our team from the University of Cambridge and Harvard University to create a new analysis. We applied a biological model to the features of all the current early Asterozoa fossils in existence, along with a sample of their closest relatives.</p>
Cantabrigiaster is the most primitive starfish-like animal to be discovered in the fossil record. Aaron Hunter, Author provided<p>Our results demonstrate <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> is the most primitive of all the Asterozoa, and most likely evolved from ancient animals called crinoids that lived 250 million years before dinosaurs. The five arms of starfish are a relic left over from these ancestors. In the case of <em>Cantabrigiaster</em>, and its starfish descendants, it evolved by flipping upside-down so its arms are face down on the sediment to feed.</p><p>Although we sampled a relatively small numbers of those ancestors, one of the unexpected outcomes was it provided an idea of how they could be related to each other. Paleontologists studying echinoderms are often lost in detail as all the different groups are so radically different from each other, so it is hard to tell which evolved first.</p>
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