Factories not warning residents of harmful pollution

When villager Deng Qi’an built three tile houses next to the Sanwei Battery Company six years ago for his business, he never expected that it would result in physical harm coming to his family.
A nurse at Wugang People's Hospital, Hunan Province, administers a free test on a girl who lives near a manganese factory in August 2009. Photo: CFP

Like many villagers, when the lead-acid battery factory was established in Zijin county, Heyuan, Guangdong Province in 2005, Deng saw it as a stroke of luck, as a new factory would bring huge commercial opportunities. 

“My family built three houses 20 meters from the factory gates. Two houses were used as retail shops (to serve factory workers), the other one was for living in,” Deng, who is over 50 years old, told Outlook Weekly, a magazine sponsored by the Xinhua News Agency.

In May, 13 out of Deng’s 14 family members were found to have excessive lead levels in their blood.

“Our house is so close to the factory. They must have seen us, but nobody told us this was a dangerous area,” Deng said.

Danger zone 

Deng and his family were not alone. By May 24, 254 local people were found to have excessive lead levels as a result of pollution from the company, and 95 were diagnosed with lead poisoning.  

According to a standard issued by the Ministry of Health in 1989, a health protection zone has to be set up around lead-acid battery factories, with distances ranging from 300 to 800 meters, depending on the average wind speed of the last five years and the factory’s production capacity. 

Lead poisoning can damage the digestive, nervous, and reproductive systems and cause stomach pains, anemia and convulsions.  

In Sanwei’s case, the exclusion zone had to be 500 meters, but most victims lived well within it.

In fact, before the Sanwei company was established, experts from the Guangdong University of Technology, who had been hired by the company, made an environmental assessment report in 2005, concluding that only 11 households were located within 500 meters of the factory, far fewer than the actual figure.

The report was accepted by the Heyuan Environmental Bureau in 2007.

Similar situations exist in other recent cases. In Zhejiang’s Deqing county, where 53 people were hospitalized after tests in late April found high lead levels in the blood of 332 residents, a factory making lead-acid motorcycle batteries was located just across the street from a residential area and farmland. 

In Luqiao district, Taizhou, Zhejiang Province, villagers live on the other side of a wall from the Taizhou Suqi Battery Company, where a total of 139 people from three villages were tested in March as having elevated lead blood levels, including 35 children.

“Having a health protection zone is just the basic requirement for building such projects,” said Wang Canfa, director of the Beijing-based Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims. “Even if this requirement is fulfilled, it can’t ensure people living nearby are free from pollution.” 

According to the China Battery Industry Association, there are more than 2,000 lead-acid battery producers around the country, most of which are small- and medium-sized companies.

“Most small- and medium-sized companies violate various environmental laws including health protection zone requirements,” said Zhang Jialing, an official from the Ministry of Environmental Protection after the ministry investigated 388 lead-acid companies in March, China Environment News reported. 


Economic pressure

The establishment of a health protection zone involves efforts from factories, local residents as well as local governments, according to Zhu Xiao, a professor of environmental law at the Renmin University of China.  

The company must negotiate with local residents to have their homes relocated outside danger zones and pay the costs before constructing the factory. 

However, local authorities and enterprises often choose to ignore the health risks in their pursuit of profits.

“The environmental watchdog should issue more detailed regulations on the examination and approval procedure for projects that may cause pollution,” Zhu told the Global Times. 

The Ministry of Environmental Protection ordered local governments on May 18 to tighten management of battery units and recycled lead producers.

Authorities cracked down on lead-acid battery producers in Zhejiang and Guangdong provinces following a spate of poisoning cases, according to Xinhua.

In Zhejiang Province, 213 out of 273 lead-acid battery companies have been shut down by authorities, while in Guangdong, companies that lack a surrounding exclusion zone of 300 meters have been closed.

Source: Global Times

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