On May 19, 2007, the Ministry of Agriculture confirmed that an outbreak of H5N1 in Hunan Province has occurred, prompting the slaughter of more than 11,000 heads of poultry. The provincial government immediately implemented an emergency plan, culling an additional 52,800 birds to prevent the spread of the disease. This was the country’s first reported outbreak in three months. Across this expansive country, millions of farmers are living in close proximity to billions of chickens. With the environmental conditions throughout China, it should come as no surprise that birds—and humans—continue to become ill.

Throughout history, China’s people have depended on the waters supplied by her seven major rivers for life itself. But over the last 20 years, water quality has deteriorated to a grave state. The Yellow River, long regarded by the Chinese as the birthplace of their civilization, has been so heavily overused for consumption, irrigation, and factory production that the amount of water flowing through this once powerful river has occasionally been 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 has been classified as “unsuitable for human contact, irrigation, and agriculture.”(1)

The list of river pollutants, lengthy and disgusting, includes industrial chemicals, heavy metals, dead animals, and untreated human excrement. Couple this with nuclear waste that comes from the river’s headwater 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.

The Chinese State Environment Protection Administration reports that industrial animal farms have become a major source of pollution. In 1995, more than 1.7 billion metric tons of unprocessed manure was 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 dumped into the Yangtze each year. More than 15 percent of water samples taken in 2001 from the Yangtze were classified as “unsuitable for human contact.” That percentage has certainly increased since 2001, and will continue to climb with the westernization of the Chinese culture.

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

In Northeast China, the Liao He River is the principal waterway flowing to the Yellow Sea from Shenyang, the capital of Liaoning Province. In 1999, this river was classified as “only suitable for industrial purposes that do not involve direct human contact with the water.”(4) Surely, it is far more contaminated in 2007. It should be no surprise that Liaoning Province has been the location of many reported human cases of avian flu and many large outbreaks among poultry over the last three years.

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

Air pollution has been blamed for health ailments among millions of Chinese residents, including lung cancer and decreased immune function. The air is so bad throughout 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 the national averages for lung cancer among U.S. women tops out at 6.3 persons per 100,000.(6)

The symptoms and diagnoses of the patients hospitalized and then confirmed to have bird flu have been catalogued by the WHO. All patients developed symptoms of fever, cough, respiratory distress, and pneumonia. Conditions for developing pneumonia can include inhaling fumes and other toxic airborne particles. To expel the congestion, an overabundance of mucous must be produced, creating the perfect environment for the rapid replication of the invading organisms. If the mucous contains a mixture of dioxin and other chemicals, the likelihood of death from influenza could 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 demise. 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 last four years and yet, outbreaks continue across China and Southeast Asia. Until the underlying causes are addressed and a massive environmental clean up is undertaken, poultry and human outbreaks will no doubt continue to occur.


(1) Outbreak of bird flu in central China village. http://www.chinaview.cn
(2) Dooley, Erin E. “Reviving China’s Ruined Rivers,” Environmental HealthPerspectives 110 (2002)
(3) Nierenberg, Danielle. “Industrial Animal Agriculture—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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