Lead poisoning scandals highlight China's lack of oversight

A child is treated for lead poisoning Friday at a hospital in Changsha, Hunan province, China. The government has detained two factory officials after 1,300 children living near a manganese smelting plant in the province were found to have drastically elevated levels of lead in their blood. The case comes days after tests determined that pollution from a lead smelter in another province has sickened hundreds. Andy Wong/AP

Parents protest as tests show more than 2,000 children affected. Two new cases show that pollution regulations are often not enforced.

By Peter Ford | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
from the August 21, 2009 edition

Beijing - Two lead poisoning scandals that have recently sickened more than 2,000 Chinese children point to the ignorance, the push for profits and jobs, and lax government oversight behind much of China's pollution.

In two separate lead poisoning cases to come to light this month, children living and going to school in the shadow of smelters belching toxic fumes have been found to have up to ten times the amount of lead in their blood considered safe in China.

"Factory owners pursue maximum profit for very little investment," says Zhang Zhengjie, a researcher at the Environmental Science Research Institute in the industrial city of Shenyang. "Very few equip their factories with environmental protection equipment."

Though this is especially true of small plants, one of the offending smelters now in the public eye, in Changqing, Shaanxi Province, is the fourth largest in the country.

Local officials were keen to attract the company, which began operations in 2006, because of the revenue it generated. The plant contributed 17 percent to the county's GDP, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency. Though the county government pledged to relocate nearly 600 families living within 500 yards of the factory, it has moved only a quarter of them so far.

Protesting pollution

Angry neighbors smashed vehicles and tore down fencing around the plant Monday, after tests showed that nearly 70 percent of their children suffered from excessive levels of lead in their blood.

The disturbance was the latest in a frequently occurring series of "mass incidents" protesting the ill effects of pollution in China.

Heavy metal pollution "is a serious problem in China and there are a lot of cases," says Ma Tianjie, an expert on toxic pollutants with Greenpeace, an environmental watchdog.

Many factories do little or nothing to limit their toxic emissions, Mr. Ma points out, and "local authorities don't usually have the resources to inspect factories regularly" even if officials are worried about pollution.

No law in China obliges polluting companies to disclose what they are emitting into the atmosphere, which facilitates violations of laws setting limits on the emission of pollutants. "People don't know there is toxic stuff coming out of the pipes so they are not as vigilant as they could be," Ma says.

Often, adds Li Bing, who runs the environmental organization "Green Oasis" which has studied lead pollution in Shanghai, "people do not know" that lead is dangerous. "Especially in poor places, awareness of the problem is low," she says.

Plan to close worst offenders

The central government, though, is not unaware of it; in an effort to reduce pollution the current Five Year Plan ordains the closure of small and inefficient metal smelting operations which are the worst offenders.

China has tightened regulations on the use of lead in the last decade, though enforcement is often lax. In 1999, China banned production of leaded gasoline, which contributes to lead in the atmosphere – an effort the US began in 1973.

But medical researchers say that the effects of lead poisoning, ranging from memory loss to damage to the nervous and reproductive systems, will affect thousands of Chinese children the rest of their lives.

"Ordinary people believe that these factories provide jobs, and that's a good thing," explains Mr. Zhang. "Only after the projects start to pollute do they realize the problem. Yet it is too late. The cost is already too high."