John Openshaw


Causing Havoc Downstream


MARCH 11, 2013

FILED UNDER: development, environment, health



There has been much alarm today in regards to the discovery of some 1,200 dead pigs in the Songjiang section of the Huangpu river in China.

The source of this porcine flood is not yet known, but, in what may become China’s next environmental and health scare, the hogs appear to have had been dumped into the river in neighboring Zhejiang province.

Initial news reports suggest that the animals died of porcine circovirus (PCV), a common disease affecting hog herds which is not known to infect humans.

While the shear number of animals involved in the Chinese case is extraordinary, the dumping of carcasses into rivers which also serve as a source of drinking water may be a common and daily occurrence throughout the developing world.

In Bangladesh it is certainly not uncommon to come across the remains of animals in rivers.

Cattle owners slaughter sick animals to minimize financial loss. The meat is sold at a reduced rate, and, given the pervasive poverty throughout rural areas, the proposition of cheap meat is attractive to villagers. Most of these carcasses will, in the end, be dumped into rivers.

In a study of diseased cattle conducted during an anthrax outbreak investigation in Bangladesh, 64% of the ill animals slaughtered were eventually disposed of in a river.

On the most superficial level, it’s not hard to see why rivers might be favored for the disposal of carcasses: rivers are plentiful and are easy to get to, they don’t require cattle owners to use their land for burials, they wash the remains and all of the unpleasantries involved quickly and easily away and out of mind, and the animals, once borne downstream, are not likely to be traced back to the dumpers.

The costs to health and environment, however, could be high: carcasses roll downstream, become lodged along shallow parts of the river, and can foul water supplies.

And while it’s impossible to quantify the human health effects caused by this practice, it only makes sense that introducing animals that have died from an infectious cause into a water supply puts people downstream at risk for disease.

Theoretically, this could represent — along with, for example, eating bush meat — one of the routes by which animal diseases might be introduced into human populations.

While there may be some action in China following this most recent massive dumping — this is likely a wide spread problem. Stopping it is going to be difficult and will require the recognition of the health risks to populations downstream and beyond and the availability of alternative ways of disposal.