China's textile industry is being urged to clean up its act after investigations uncovered widespread pollution in two textile factory towns in Guangdong province that make blue jeans and bras.
The probe by environmental campaign group Greenpeace found high concentrations of heavy metals in toxic discharges at Xintang and Gurao.
And it is now calling on the local government to launch an investigation into the sources of pollution, and the textile industry to take steps to reduce and eliminate the use and release of hazardous chemicals during production.
Xintang is known as the 'Blue Jeans Capital of the World' since more than 40% of its jeans are exported to the US, the EU, Russia and other countries. It produces 260m pairs of jeans annually, or more than 60% of China's total jeans production and equivalent to 40% of all the jeans sold in the US each year.
Meanwhile, 80% of Gurao's economy is related to the underwear and lingerie industry. Each year the so-called 'Capital of Sexy' produces 200m bras - enough for one-third of the woman in China.
"Xintang and Gurao are symbols of success in China's export-model economy, yet we were horrified by the environmental degradation we saw during our fieldwork visits from April to September," said Greenpeace Toxics campaigner Mariah Zhao.
"Though we cannot pinpoint the pollution sources definitively at this stage, it's worth noting that textile is the dominant industry in both towns by a long run."
Testing by an independent laboratory revealed heavy metals such as copper, cadmium, and lead in 17 out of 21 samples of water and sediment from Xintang and Gurao. One sediment sample from Xintang contained cadmium at concentrations 128 times in excess of national environmental standards.
"Dyeing, washing, bleaching, and printing are some of the dirtiest processes in the textile industry, requiring high volumes of water as well as heavy metals and other chemicals," explained Zhao. "And Xintang is home to the complete blue jean manufacturing process, including dyeing, bleaching, and washing."
Workers in the industry also testified to Greenpeace, commenting on the smell and colour of the water discharged from the dyeing factories upstream.
"With China nicknamed 'the Factory of the World,' it's important to remember that Xintang and Gurao are emblematic of the larger problem of dirty textile manufacturing - they are just two of 133 textile industrial clusters in the country," Zhao added.
"The responsibility of wastewater regulation and phasing out hazardous chemicals in textile manufacturing must be faced by not only Xintang and Gurao's industries and government, but also throughout China."
"We also hope that consumers will join us in pushing for change from the government and their favourite clothing companies. It would be tragic if fashion and economics comes at the cost of China's clean water resources."