Officials in Kien Luong town say they're shy about greeting people on the street since most of them look as though they forgot to wash their faces in the morning.
“It makes no difference whether you wash your face or not. Even your bike is dusty after a short ride,” one said.
Five cement factories built within a ten kilometers radius has heavily thickened the air above the capitol of the namesake district in Kien Giang Province.
In addition to the tedious task of constantly wiping floors and faces, the ever-present dust has allegedly left many in the town sick.
Tran Quoc Vu, who lives near Kien Luong Cement Factory, demonstrated the extent of the problem by sweeping half a kilograms of dust off his ten square meter floor.
“That much dust falls in just one night. So how much cement have we inhaled after all these years?” Vu cried.
One local said they used to consider the dust a blessing. To make a little money, you need only sweep into a bag it and sell it.
Now many call the dust “unbearable” and use a Vietnamese expression that describes the town as a place that's hard to breath.
Cement factory dust coats trees and roofs all over town.
Sometimes meals when a family fails to close their doors tightly enough, it ends up coating their meals
Trees have withered in the dust.
The owner of footwear shop said she has to clean her merchandise every day to prevent it from looking used.
Tong Quang Quyen, a local man, said the factories' investors know well about extent of the damage since most of their senior advisers built homes far from the factories.
“They don’t have to inhale the dust every day like us,” Quyen said, referring to one such adviser who built a home five kilometers from the nearest factory.
Thanh Nien reporters were directed to visit the home but the people living there refused to receive them.
Locals have recently sent complaints to different government agencies citing high rates of people suffering and dying from respiratory conditions.
Nguyen Van Tuyen, a local town official, said their recent survey of around 2,800 people residents of a single 1.5km stretch of the town found that nearly 40 members had died of cancer, mostly of the lungs and throat.
“That is an unofficial figure, the real one could be bigger,” Tuyen said.
Doctor Huynh Quyet Thang, vice chairman of the Vietnam Oncology Association, called the rate “terrible.”
Thang said environmental damage is inevitable in the areas around cement factories; those impacts, he added, could lead to diseases such as lung and respiratory inflammation.
Asbestos, a fibrous mineral found in many kinds of rock including those used in cement production, and radon – the radioactive element found in rock and soil-- can cause cancer, Thang said.
Dang Kim Thanh, vice chairman of the district, said he has been informed of the health situation and has ordered the district medical center to assist locals.
A Kien Giang Province local collects half a kilogram of cement dust by sweeping part of his floor one morning. Photo: Tien Trinh
And leave the factories alone?
Kien Luong Cement Factory had been operating in the area for some time before the authorities decided to establish a residential area around it.
But authorities deviated from the plan by allowing four additional cement factories to open in the area, including the giant Holcim Factory backed by Swiss investment.
The factories have eaten into limestone mountains, many of which were valued for their historical and scenic properties.
With locals accusing the factories of discharging untreated emissions, Lam Hoang Sa, vice chairman of the province, said the factories' environmental pollution stems from their use of outdated technology.
“Only the technology at Holcim is relatively acceptable,” Sa said.
On August 28, a Thanh Nien reporter witnessed raw concrete materials being transported from the factory to barges without being covered.
Wind blew the dust all over the air.
Doctor Nguyen Dinh Hoe, the general secretary of Vietnam's Association for Conservation of Nature and Environment visited the cement town and says the evidence presented by the locals should be enough to shut the factories down.
Hoe said it seems like the environmental ministry and the provincial authorities haven't done a proper job of assessing the environmental impact of such a large number of cement factories before licensing them.
Colonel Pham Trung Thanh, spokesman of Kien Giang Police, disagrees.
“The pollution has not reached a point that merits punishment,” he said, adding that they've asked the factory to clean up their production.
Doan Huu Thang, head of the environment division of Kien Giang Natural Resources and Environment Department, also expressed sympathy for the factories.
“They will have to invest a large sum of money (in treatment and the like), and haven't been able to do that yet.”
Thang specifically defended Kien Luong Cement Factory, formerly called Ha Tien 2, as saying that it has improved a lot compared to the past.