Even the most choking of Beijing smogs eventually gives way to blue skies. The very impermanence of air pollution encourages optimism that it can be solved one day. The poisoning of China's land and water is another matter altogether. Unlike smog, which can be seen the moment it leaves a smokestack, chemicals leaking from pipes into China's soil and rivers may not be discovered for years or decades. By then, the damage may be incalculable and permanent.
Last week's release of data collected during a nearly nine-year national soil survey finally gave Chinese a chance to evaluate the devastating toll that 30 years of rapid industrial development has had on them, their food supply, and their country. The numbers are astonishing. More than 16 percent of China's 3.7 million square miles of soil is contaminated. Even worse, nearly a fifth of the country's arable land is polluted. While the report doesn't specify how badly, hints exist. In December, a senior Chinese official conceded that 2 percent of China's arable land - an area the size of Belgium - had become too polluted to grow crops at all.