China’s Heavy Metal Crops

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Looking for a good way to consume a higher daily dose of lead, arsenic, and cadmium? Try smoking Chinese cigarettes.

According to a Reuters report, a recent tobacco study conducted by researchers from the Buffalo-based Roswell Park Cancer Institute found that cigarettes produced in China contain three times the amount of heavy metals found in Canadian-manufactured brands.

Researchers analyzed 78 different Chinese cigarette brands, comparing them to Canadian brands because information based on regular testing of Canada’s tobacco is made publicly available by the Canadian public health agency, Health Canada.

Given a string of tainted Chinese products, including food and toys, in recent years, it may come as no surprise that the country’s cigarettes have their flaws, too. But the study, published in the health policy journal Tobacco Control, suggests that the heavy metal content is neither an additive nor a byproduct of shoddy production. In fact, the culprit is China’s soil.

“Tobacco like other crops including rice, absorbs minerals and other things from the soil, so if the soil has cadmium, lead or arsenic, they will be absorbed into the tobacco,” Reuters cited Geoffrey Fong, a member of the research team and a professor at the University of Waterloo in Canada, as saying.

Decades of industrial pollution have contaminated much of China’s land, causing concerns far beyond tobacco. Crops such as rice, fruits and vegetables are also cultivated in land that has been exposed to industrial waste and may be passing along excessive levels of metal to consumers. Government advisers warned officials earlier this year that contaminated soil poses a risk to the country’s food security.

China feeds 22% of the world’s population but it is home to only 7% to 10% of the world’s arable land. In 2007, China’s Ministry of Land and Resources said that 7% to 10% was found to be polluted by contaminants. Excessive ingestion heavy metals can contribute to a wide range of health problems, including brain damage and cancer.

The government has stated it in the past that it plans to monitor pollution an increase crop testing to ensure safety.

Concerns about metallic elements found in food are mounting as China becomes a larger player in the global food industry. China’s agricultural exports to the U.S., including processed fruits and vegetables, juice and tree nuts, totaled $2.9 billion in 2009, making it the third largest supplier of agricultural imports to the U.S., according to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.

While consumers in the rest of the world can steer clear of grown-in-China foods, Chinese people themselves have fewer options. The country imports billions of dollars worth of soybeans, poultry and meat, but grains and produce are grown locally.

China’s 301 million smokers do have alternatives: Import brands, such as Marlboro and Camel, are widely available, though at higher cost. Kicking the habit is an option the government has encouraged in recent years, despite its reliance on tobacco-tax revenues, as the cost of treating smoking-related diseases is increasing.

The health costs of continuous exposure to metals through cigarettes is still unknown, Reuters cited the tobacco study as saying.

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