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Tainted tobacco leaves generate China push to restore polluted soil.

A new report has warned that Chinese tobacco plants are sucking up heavy metals from contaminated soils. The Chinese tobacco industry is challenging the findings, and analysts predict sales will not be weakened. Elsewhere in the word, pests and disease are a bigger problem.

While the health lobby is pretty much convinced that tobacco is unhealthy period, activists will have doubtless been unnerved by the October study warning that Chinese tobacco plants have sucked up high levels of heavy metals from contaminated soils. Obviously, given tobacco is ingested by consumers, this is not good news. The research by American and Canadian researchers, published in October in the UK-based academic journal Tobacco Control said Chinese cigarettes contain a high amount of metals as a result, citing 13 major Chinese cigarette brands including Baisha, Honghe and Double Happiness as having problems. And the pollutants really are bad enough to damage sales: for example, cadmium, which could cause kidney and liver damage, is as high as 3.21 micrograms per gram of tobacco in Chinese cigarettes, more than twice the amount Canadian-made cigarettes contain, for instance. Lead, which affects the peripheral nervous system, is found to be 2.65 micrograms per tobacco gram in Chinese sticks, eight times higher than Canadian products--which were used as a control in the study.

Entitled 'Cigarettes sold in China: design, emissions and metals' and based on the cigarettes purchased from local retailers in seven big Chinese cities (Beijing, Changsha, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Shenyang, Yinchuan, Zhengzhou) between 2005 to 2007, the study stirred a huge debate in China.

In October, right after the study was published, Wang Xiansheng, deputy director of the technology department of China's State Tobacco Monopoly Administration (STMA), expressed his doubt to CCTV (China Central Television), the mouthpiece of the Chinese government. "So far there are no standards on tobacco products' heavy metal concentration in China and other parts of the world. I don't think the research which simply compares Chinese-and Canadian-made cigarettes can be trusted," he said. He added the STMA will verify the authenticity of the study and conduct research of its own regarding the metal issue. A spokesman of the STMA declined to comment on the schedule of the research, saying there is no news to be announced at the moment.

The study makes the unsurprising conclusion that metals are most likely to be carried by tobacco leaves from plants growing on polluted soil: "Metal content in tobacco leaf primarily is driven by the metal content of the soil in which it is grown, rather than resulting from processing," wrote lead researcher Dr Richard J O'Connor, assistant professor of oncology, department of health behaviour at New York-based Roswell Park Cancer Institute. These comments were echoed by Prof Shi at the Zhengzhou-based College of Tobacco Science of Henan Agricultural University: "The soil is tainted, and it also contaminates crops and fruits, but currently there is no easy way to solve the problem," he said, declining to give his full name due to the sensitivity of the issue.

However, he added the Chinese tobacco industry has been paying great attention to soil and water pollution for years and has done a lot of related research. "It's just they never published the findings," he said.

Irritated by the study, Chinese tobacco producers have claimed to Chinese language local media that the research was a trick played by their foreign rivals who intend to make their way into China.

However, it does not seem possible, said Li Qian, a Xiamen-based industry analyst at Kent Ridge Consulting, a Singaporean company. "[A] cigarette is not like ice-cream, smokers usually don't want to change the taste they are used to," she added Chinese smokers generally prefer roasted flavour, different from the blended flavour of foreign cigarettes. Also, Li said this study is not likely to affect the sales of Chinese cigarettes. "Smokers know that smoking is harmful, and they also know most likely they would be poisoned by nicotine, the content of which is much higher than that of heavy metals in cigarettes," she said. Li also agreed soil is the source for the contamination. There is no other way for the leaves to become contaminated as the whole supply chain is strictly monitored by the tobacco manufacturers and STMA. "For example, all of the leaves have to go through different tests at the STMA quality control centre, including [for] metals. It's just we don't have a standard for finished cigarettes, and no other country has," she said.

China has a reason to worry about its tobacco leaves because the nation's two largest plantations are located in Yunnan and Guizhou provinces, where mining is one of the most important regional businesses due to the rich mineral resources in the area. "Lands surrounded by mines and chemical factories are heavily polluted as pollution is channelled into soil through water and air," said Tian Jilin, a researcher at the Shanghai-based Institute of Eco-Environment and Plant Protection.

And it is not as if the Chinese government is unaware of the problem. It promised action in 2006, when startled by reports that about 12 million tonnes of China-made grain are polluted by tainted soil each year, causing tremendous losses to the country.

In October 2010, China started the country's first restoration project of polluted land in Liyang city, Jiangsu province. Funded by the Washington DC-based Global Environment Facility, (a World Bank agency), the project will help local chemical factories restore the soil tainted by the pesticide, mirex. A draft of China's first soil protection law is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2010.

Whether other countries' tobacco sectors might face similar problems is not yet known. Certainly it is less likely in jurisdictions with tougher environmental regulations and also where population is less concentrated: in China, farmland and industry are often close together. "I'm not aware of pollution from industry in tobacco-growing areas here. China is overpopulated. The US is very different--our land areas are large and usually quite separate from manufacturing areas," said Dr Asimina Mila, team-leader, department of plant pathology, at the North American Plant Disease Forecast Centre at North Carolina State University.

Tobacco production in North America is nevertheless victim to a number of air-borne diseases that in some cases are carried from one location to another by humans.

"The main problem at present is with soil-borne diseases, mainly bacteria wilt, black shank and Granville wilt," said Dr Mila. Such wilting diseases eventually cause the death of the entire plant. However these have been kept at bay following a solid fumigation programme in recent years. The severity of these also depends on the season and the location of the growing area. By contrast, air-borne blue mould is a more or less continuous and universal problem. The US Department of Agriculture advises that "common bacterial and fungal diseases in tobacco and vegetables can survive in a variety of places during the winter months, noting that "one of the biggest tobacco diseases in Kentucky, black shank, can live in soil attached to tractors or farm implements." Other organisms that can attack tobacco plants such as pythium root rot and target spot, can thrive over-winter in transplant trays that were used during the previous year, especially if the disease occurred earlier in the trays, said the department. Meanwhile, there has never been a serious problem caused by toxic soil in the tobacco-growing areas of Europe, said Fabienne Mornet of the European Association for Tobacco Research and Experimentation, based in Bergerac, France. In Europe "the main problem is blue mould, viruses and sclerotinia rot which are airborne. We don't have a lot of problems with soil-borne diseases," she said. In France "the more common problems are pests like nematodes [microscopic worms], wireworms and aphids and so on and not usually with diseases." Mme Mornet said that crop protection agents (CPA) were an issue that had to be broached on a European level in order to anticipate active ingredients withdrawal and to collaborate efficiently in acquiring missing data in respect of active ingredients. The rules on crop protection products in tobacco, as for other crops, were laid down by the EU directive 91/414/EEC and by 2011 there would be the possibility of mutual recognition of CPA registrations between countries.

According to Francois Vedel, secretary-delegate of the International Union of Tobacco Planters (Unitab) which represents nearly 85,000 European producers, Europe suffered from fewer diseases than some tropical areas of the world like south America and Asia. But offsetting this was the fact that EU rules on pesticides were strict which meant many had been dropped in recent years. "This does cause problems with tobaccos coming in from other parts of the world which still use these pesticides, such as Brazil," he said.

M Vedel said Europe was lucky in that plants were not resistant to pesticides as they were in some areas of the US. Blue mould was not normally a big problem in Europe because it could be fought with permitted pesticides, he said.

In essence

Chinese tobacco has become polluted due to soil contamination, says study

Factory and pesticides chief polluters of soil in China, but pests infest tobacco plants worldwide

China tobacco industry challenges report
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Author:Fangqing, Wang; Osborn, Alan
Publication:International News
Date:Nov 1, 2010
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