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It’s Not the Chickens, It’s The Environment, Stupid!

On May 19, 2007, the Ministry of Agriculture confirmed that an outbreak of H5N1 had occurred in Hunan Province, causing the slaughter of more than 11,000 poultry. The provincial government immediately implemented an emergency plan, killing an additional 52,800 birds to prevent the disease from spreading. This was the first outbreak reported in the country in three months. Across this sprawling country, millions of farmers live in close proximity to billions of chickens. With the environmental conditions across China, it should come as no surprise that birds—and people—continue to get sick.

Throughout history, the people of China have depended on the waters fed by its seven great rivers for life. But in the last 20 years, the water quality has deteriorated to a serious state. The Yellow River, long regarded by the Chinese as the birthplace of their civilization, has been used so much for consumption, irrigation and factory production that the amount of water flowing through this once mighty river is occasionally reduced to a trickle. According to the World Bank report published in 2001, “China: Air, Land and Water—Environmental Priorities for a New Millennium,” 40 percent of the water in large stretches of the Yellow River is classified as “unfit for human contact. irrigation and agriculture’ (1)

The list of river pollutants, long and disgusting, includes industrial chemicals, heavy metals, dead animals and raw human excrement. Combined with the nuclear waste coming from the headwaters in Tibet and the millions of dead chickens contaminating the groundwater, it is only a matter of time before more human outbreaks occur in China.

China’s State Environmental Protection Administration reports that industrial animal farms have become a major source of pollution. In 1995, more than 1.7 billion metric tons of untreated manure were dumped into rivers that serve as water supplies.(2) In China’s second largest river, the Yangtze, conditions are much the same. More than 23.4 billion tons of sewage and industrial waste are discharged into the Yangtze every year. More than 15 percent of water samples taken in 2001 from the Yangtze were classified as “unfit for human contact.” This percentage has certainly increased since 2001 and will continue to increase with the westernization of Chinese culture.

The influx of rural farmers into the cities has stretched the sewage infrastructure beyond capacity. Managers of most new buildings report that the structures are connected to sewers, but none of the waste is treated. up to 80 percent of raw sewage is still released directly into the water supply.(3)

In northeastern China, the Liao He River is the main waterway that flows into the Yellow Sea from Shenyang, the capital of Liaoning Province. In 1999, this river was designated as “only suitable for industrial purposes not involving direct human contact with the water”. identification of several reported cases of avian influenza in humans and several large outbreaks in poultry over the past three years.

In addition to serious problems with polluted water, China is home to nine of the ten cities rated as having the worst air pollution in the world. Respiratory diseases linked to air pollution are the leading cause of death for both children and adults throughout China, according to a November 1999 World Resources Institute report, Urban Air Pollution Risks to Children: A Global Environmental Health Indicator . Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and pneumonia are the leading causes of death in adults and children, respectively.(5)

Air pollution has been blamed for health ailments in millions of Chinese residents, including lung cancer and reduced immune function. The air is so bad across southern China that women in Yunnan province were found to have the highest rates of lung cancer ever recorded: 125.6 cases per 100,000 women. Compare this to national averages for lung cancer among US women. with 6.3 people per 100,000.(6)

The symptoms and diagnoses of patients who were hospitalized and subsequently confirmed to have bird flu have been recorded by the WHO. All patients showed symptoms of fever, cough, respiratory distress and pneumonia. Conditions for the development of pneumonia may include inhalation of fumes and other toxic particulate matter. To clear the congestion, an overabundance of mucus must be produced, creating the perfect environment for the invading organisms to multiply rapidly. If the mucus contains a mixture of dioxin and other chemicals, the chance of dying from the flu can be exponential.

Considering that chronic lung disease and pneumonia are among the most common causes of death in China, the identification of H5N1 may have had little to do with their deaths. Perhaps the cause of their pneumonia was environmental toxicities complicated by the presence of H5N1.

Poultry and ducks have been killed by the hundreds of millions over the past four years, and yet outbreaks continue across China and Southeast Asia. Until the underlying causes are addressed and a massive environmental cleanup is undertaken, poultry and human outbreaks will undoubtedly continue to occur.

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BIBLIOGRAPHICAL REFERENCES

(1) Bird flu outbreak in a village in central China. http://www.chinaview.cn

(2) Dooley, Erin E. “Reviving China’s Ruined Rivers”, Environmental HealthPerspectives 110 (2002)

(3) Nierenberg, Danielle. “Industrial Animal Farming – the next global health crisis?” World Society for the Protection of Animals, November 2004.

(4) Schmidt, Charles W. “Economy and Environment: China Seeks a Balance”, Environmental Health Perspectives 110 (2002).

(5) Table: Changhua, Wu, et al. “Water Pollution and Human Health in China,” Environmental Health Perspectives 107 (1999).

(6) O’Neill, Marie S, et al. “Health, Wealth, and Air Pollution: Advancing Theory and Methods,” Environmental Health Perspectives 111 (2003).

(7) Schmidt, Charles W. “Economy and Environment: China Seeks a Balance”, Environmental Health Perspectives 110 (2002)

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