As part of a five-year plan to clean up its environment, China’s Environment ministry admitted that pollution has led to “cancer villages” in the country.

That may not seem like a cause to cheer, but the admission is a significant step for a country that has long sidestepped and downplayed pollution issues.

“I do think this shows a positive development,” Ma Jun, one of China’s leading environmentalists, told The Telegraph. “Before there was always this tendency to play down or even cover up the issues. If that continues then all these problems with air, water, soil and roundwater pollution and their health impact could drag on for a long, long time. The recognition of the existence of problems is the very first step and the precondition for us to really start solving these problems.”

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Public anger has been growing, and the smog in Beijing and other cities last month skyrockets past World Health Organization levels deemed hazardous.

The report read: “In recent years, toxic and hazardous chemical pollution has caused many environmental disasters, cutting off drinking water supplies, and even leading to severe health and social problems such as ‘cancer villages.’”

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While the report did not elaborate on the term “cancer villages,” environmentalists have long pointed out that towns near factories have higher rates of cancer, the BBC reported. Throughout the country, one in four people die from cancer. China’s mortality rate from cancer has shot up 80 precent over the last 30 years.

Recent environmental activism has been spurred by citizen journalism projects: investigative reporter Deng Fei recently asked citizens to post photos of polluted waterways. In 2009, he started mapping the cancer villages with GoogleMaps.