February 2, 2009-by Barbara Demick in the Los Angeles Times. The government's acknowledgment of the problem is a victory for environmentalists, who say the rate of defects is highest in coal-producing regions. Illustration © 2009 by John Blair
Reporting from Beijing -- Chinese officials told the state media that birth defects are increasing at an alarming rate and that a major reason was degradation of the environment.
"The number of newborns with birth defects is constantly increasing in both urban and rural areas," Jiang Fan, vice minister of the National Population and Family Planning Commission, was quoted by the China Daily's weekend edition as saying in a recent conference.
Environmentalists say that the leading culprit is China's dependence on coal and that birth defects are highest in coal-producing regions such as Shanxi and Inner Mongolia.
Although Jiang did not give out new figures at last month's conference, a study by the commission released in 2007 found that birth defects had increased nearly 40% from 2001 to 2006, coinciding with the country's explosive economic growth.
The government's acknowledgment was a victory for environmentalists, some of whom have faced arrest and harassment for trying to publicize the relationship between pollution and disease.
"So many people are wondering why, when our lives are supposed to be getting better, there are more and more babies born with birth defects and couples who are infertile," said Huo Daishan, an environmental activist from Henan province who has been fighting against printing, paper manufacturing and chemical dye factories whose pollution he believes has caused disease clusters along the Huai River.
Greenpeace China has been campaigning against pollution from coal.
"The statement from the National Population and Family Planning Commission once again proved that coal burning is not only a climate killer, but one of the major health hazards in China," Greenpeace China said in a statement Sunday. (MORE