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Sacrifice Zones: The Truth about ‘Cancer Villages’ in China and the USA

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes below.

By Harry Mercer

“Pollution affects health. So what? Nobody asked you to be born in this village… I live as long as fate allows. So, if I have to breathe this poison I don’t care, that’s how we live.”

Fifty-four-year-old woman in a low-income village, Boacun, 2009.

"In Dapu, a chemical factory sits next to a farm. 'Nothing comes from these plants,' says a local farmer." The Wall Street Journal

Pollution is constantly at the forefront of environmental conversations, and rightly so. London, a supposed global influence, routinely makes the headlines for exceeding European limits on air pollution. News items on pollution in China are almost too frequent to follow. And perhaps unsurprisingly, a recent study concluded that around 15% of deaths worldwide from COVID-19 can be attributed to air pollution exposure (this figure is 26% in China). But, of course, pollution does not affect us all in the same way. This article will examine the ways in which different communities respond to discoveries of extreme pollution, and the consequent institutional actions taken.

In 2013, the Chinese government publicly acknowledged the existence of “cancer villages,” after the term had first emerged in 2001. Pollution in China is a multifarious issue, predominantly caused by rising affluence, globalisation of manufacturing, and urbanisation. [1] Exclusively developed in poor, rural communities like Qiancun and Boacun, the installation of lead and zinc mines have resulted in high local cancer incidences, with villagers drinking obviously tainted water and breathing visibly darkened air. [2] Growing concern and unrest over pollution and its health effects mean that cancer villages are not only a medical phenomenon, but also a deeply social, cultural, and political one. Although not as extreme, similar narratives have occurred in a plethora of economically diverse countries like Argentina, Russia, and the USA. [3]

Steve Lerner’s adoption of the term ‘Sacrifice Zones’ relates specifically to cases within the United States, but can be seen as emblematic of the struggles faced by different global communities. “Across the US,” he writes, “thousands of people, most of them in low-income or minority communities, live next to heavily polluting industrial sites.” [4] He notes that the residents of formerly poor, but rapidly developing and industrialising areas suffer disproportionately from weak pollution regulation, in Mississippi’s ‘cancer valley,’ for example. After years of exposure to poisoned air and water, contaminated soil, and pollution-related health problems, individuals began to take notice. Following the discovery of these disease clusters, local communities came together and politicised their campaigns, resulting in inspiring cases of environmental justice activism. Lerner concludes that these grassroot struggles transformed the environmental justice movement in the United States. As hopeful a tale as this is, the same cannot be said for rural China.

In areas like Boacun, environmental regulations are largely overlooked because polluting firms provide sturdy employment and pay their taxes. This happens with the reluctant acceptance of locals who rely on such firms for jobs and income. As a consequence, in areas where the villagers’ role as whistle-blowers is most important, the communities are least inclined to oppose the injustice. [5] Existing studies have highlighted that whilst the state and civil societies are unlikely to support small rural protests, a low income and socio-economic status make it difficult for villagers’ protests to gain traction. Furthermore, the longer pollution continues in these areas, the more villagers come to regard it as inevitable. In China, rural activism is portrayed as a David-versus-Goliath struggle, with small communities struggling to contend with local governments who collude with industries to maintain the status quo. These issues align with the socio-economic fault lines of Chinese society, with the majority of villagers learning to live with pollution as opposed to protecting it.

To conclude, Steve Lerner documents an inspired account of environmental activism, whereby the underdogs were able to overcome capitalist-fuelled pollution through teamwork and resilience. But what about communities that are torn apart by pollution instead of coming together in their fight against it? What about resignation? The stories of villages like Boacun and Qiancun provide irrefutable evidence that not all communities are created equal, and that the status quo is impenetrable for specific groups of people under certain socio-political conditions. There is no clear line between a community’s discovery of deadly pollution and its consequent activist success. To finish, it is understandable that studies of environmental justice tend to focus on stories of success, like Steve Lerner’s case of Mississippi. More attention, however, needs to be given to the suffering and resignation of communities like Baocun, in which pollution has become an immovable part of their everyday lives.



  1. Shapiro, Judith. (2012). China’s Environmental Challenges. Cambridge: Polity Press.

  2. Lora-Wainwright, A. (2017). Resigned activism: Living with pollution in rural China. (Urban and industrial environments).

  3. Auyero, Javier and Swiston, Debora. (2009). Flammable: Environmental Suffering in an Argentine Shantytown. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2009.

  4. Lerner, S. (2010). Sacrifice zones: The front lines of toxic chemical exposure in the United States. Cambridge, Mass; London: MIT Press.

  5. Ibid (n2).


Kirby, Peter Wynn. (2011). Troubled Natures: Waste, Environment, Japan. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii.

Petryna, Adriana. (2002). Life Exposed: Biological Citizens after Chernobyl. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Phillips DIW, Osmond C, Southall H, et al. (2018). Evaluating the long-term consequences of air pollution in early life: geographical correlations between coal consumption in 1951/1952 and current mortality in England and Wales. BMJ: Open.

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