China’s Birth Defects Rising

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I was recently talking with Zhang Hongjun, a former senior official with China’s State Environmental Protection Administration, about the prospects of Beijing cleaning up its bad air ahead of the Olympics. His response surprised me, twice. First, he was confident that the city could get the problem under control. And second, he wasn’t ready to call that a good thing. “My concern is the Beijing will be something of a showcase,” says Zhang, who is now a lawyer with the firm Holland & Knight. “Improvements in Beijing doesn’t necessarily mean improvements in the rest of China.”

It was in that context that I considered the news about the nearly 40% growth in birth defects in China between 2001 and 2006, a trend that one official linked to pollution. That means about one Chinese child born with a birth defect every 30 seconds. And the prospects for these children are grim. As many as 40% die soon after birth; an equal proportion remained deformed for life.

Seeing those numbers, I feel chagrined at wondering if Beijing’s air will be clean for a few weeks next summer. It’s an important question. But not as important as whether the country can clean up places like the coal mining regions of Shanxi, where the rate of birth defects is highest.