‘I Can’t Afford My Body’: Portraits of China’s Abandoned Chemical Weapon Survivors
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As the Second World War drew to a close, the Japanese army left behind hundreds of thousands of chemical munitions in rivers, caves, and mountains across China. Japan’s leaders, meanwhile, did all they could to conceal the country’s illicit chemical and biological weapons programs by destroying the evidence, including the locations of its remaining munitions caches.

The effects of this decision are still being felt today. In 1992, the Chinese delegation to the International Conference on Disarmament estimated that Japan had abandoned at least 2 million chemical weapons on Chinese territory; Japan has put the figure at about 700,000.

Although Japan agreed in 1999 to fund and participate in the cleanup process, progress has been slow, and leaky chemical weapons have continued to pose a tremendous environmental and health risk to communities around China.

In 1974, a bomb containing mustard gas and lewisite was dredged up from the Songhua River in Northeast China, poisoning dozens; in 1982, workers dug up a mustard gas cylinder at a construction site in Mudanjiang, Heilongjiang province; and in 2003, construction workers inadvertently unearthed five barrels of mustard gas and sold them to a scrapper in Qiqihar, Heilongjiang. By the time authorities got the situation under control, 44 people had been exposed, and the scrapper had died.

Mustard gas is highly carcinogenic and mutagenic, and there is no known antidote. Those exposed can suffer lifelong complications, including skin conditions, loss of sight, and respiratory problems. Many victims also experience discrimination from their co-workers, bosses, and neighbors.

The war may have ended decades ago, but its scars have yet to heal.