ON A cold evening last month a mob of more than 200 broke through a wall and trashed the offices of the Zhejiang Haijiu Battery factory in the eastern Chinese village of Mengxi.They were reacting to the news that workers and villagers had been poisoned by lead emissions from the factory, which had operated in violation of environmental rules for six years.
Ultimately, 233 adults and 99 children were found to have levels of lead in their blood up to seven times China’s safe limit.
One of the children affected was three-year-old Han Tiantian, who lived across the road from the factory where her father Han Zongyuan worked. He was told in March lead has caused irreversible brain damage.
Mr Han said: “At the moment I heard the doctor say that, my heart was shattered.
“We wanted our child to have everything, that is why we worked this hard. That is why we poisoned ourselves at this factory. Now it turns out the child is poisoned too. I have no words to describe how I feel.”
In the past two-and-a-half years, thousands of workers, villagers and children in at least nine of China’s 31 regions have been found to be suffering from toxic levels of lead exposure, mostly caused by pollution from battery factories and smelters.
High levels damage the brain, kidney, liver, nerves and stomach and can even kill. Children are susceptible as they absorb lead more easily than adults.
Chasing economic development, local officials regularly flout regulations and risk public health, leading to incidents such as the Haijiu factory riot. A report by Human Rights Watch released yesterday states that some local officials have reacted to mass poisonings by limiting lead testing, withholding and possibly manipulating test results, denying proper treatment to children and adults and trying to silence parents and activists.
“What we are trying to underscore is how little has been done to address the massive impact of lead pollution in China,” Joe Amon, HRW’s health and human rights director, said. “It really has affected a whole generation of kids.”
Chinese leaders have acknowledged the gravity of the issue and have raised the priority of reducing heavy-metal pollution under the government’s latest five-year plan, presented in March. But despite efforts to step up enforcement, including suspending production last month at a number of battery factories, the response remains faltering.
At a meeting last month of China’s State Council, after yet another disclosure of mass poisoning, premier Wen Jiabao scolded environmental minister Zhou Shengxian for the lack of progress, revealed one insider.
The government has not ordered a nationwide survey of children’s blood lead levels, so the number at risk is unknown.
Mass poisonings like that at the Haijiu factory typically come to light only after suspicious parents seek hospital tests, then raise a hue and cry. A 2006 review of data suggested that one-third of Chinese children suffer from elevated blood lead levels.
Haijiu breezed through six years of inspections, even though many workers say they were repeatedly hospitalised for lead poisoning. Only after last month’s protest did authorities order it to be shut down.
This month, Li Ganjie, the vice minister for environmental protection, said every suspected case of lead poisoning is fully investigated and “the people involved, whether children or adults, are well-tested and treated”.
Recent interviews with 20 families in Henan and Zhejiang indicate otherwise. Near Jiyuan City, Henan, nearly 1,000 children from ten villages were found to have elevated blood lead levels in 2009. Officials ordered the children treated, families moved and smelters cleaned.
But a recent visitor found children still playing in the streets outside a private lead smelter belching black smoke. Parents and grandparents said hospitals now refuse to administer new blood lead level tests.
“The children are not healthy. We don’t know how sick they are, and can’t find out,” said a 66-year-old villager whose two grandsons had lead levels two and three times above the norm in 2009.