Lead Poisoning in China: The Hidden Scourge
It's a massive health and human rights disaster.
That's the conclusion of report published last week by Human Rights Watch into lead poisoning in China.
Acording to the organisation, the Beijing authorities have performed no comprehensive survey of citizens (especially children) who may be affected; don't perform adequate testing; sometimes falsify results even when they do - and then often fail to provide proper treatment.
The report estimates that "hundreds of thousands" of children, mainly in poor rural villages are suffering from lead contamination from nearby factories.
Just a fortnight ago, the Chinese government pledged to close down the most polluting of the country's lead battery manufacturers. See: Lead strikes again in China
But Human Rights Watch holds out little prospect that future health damages will be prevented.
It's not that stringent laws do not exist; nor that culprits escape scot free.
However, as pointed out by Beijing economist, Professor John Gong, the companies will continue getting away with criminal acts because local enforcement agencies themselves gain income from the fines they impose.
The penalties are made deliberately light and arbitrary, in order not to close down all the factories in one fell swoop. (You don't kill all the geese that lay the leaden eggs).
And, says Mr Gong, when a company is put out of business, it will often simply close up shop and set up shop elsewhere.
Lead Poisoning in China: The Hidden Scourge
Sim Chi Yin
New York Times
15 June 2011
MENGXI VILLAGE, China - On a chilly evening early last month, a mob of more than 200 people gathered in this tiny eastern China village at the entrance to the Zhejiang Haijiu Battery Factory, a maker of lead-acid batteries for motorcycles and electric bikes. They shouldered through an outer brick wall, swept into the factory office and, in an outpouring of pure fury, smashed the cabinets, desks and computers inside.
|Map of lead poisoning in China. Source: Human Rights Watch|
Han Tiantian, 3, of Mengxi Village, China, has more than four times China's allowable blood lead level. Her mother, Wen Yuni, and father, Han Zongyuan, have both worked in a battery factory.
News had spread that workers and villagers had been poisoned by lead emissions from the factory, which had operated for six years despite flagrant environmental violations. But the truth was even worse: 233 adults and 99 children were ultimately found to have concentrations of lead in their blood, up to seven times the level deemed safe by the Chinese government.
One of them was 3-year-old Han Tiantian, who lived just across the road from the plant. Her father, Han Zongyuan, a factory worker, said he learned in March that she had absorbed enough lead to irreversibly diminish her intellectual capacity and harm her nervous system.
"At the moment I heard the doctor say that, my heart was shattered," Mr. Han said in an interview last week. "We wanted this child to have everything. That's why we worked this hard. That's 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."
Such scenes of heartbreak and anger have been repeated across China in recent months with the discovery of case after case of mass lead poisoning - together with instances in which local governments tried to cover them up.
In the past two and a half years, thousands of workers, villagers and children in at least 9 of mainland China's 31 province-level regions have been found to be suffering from toxic levels of lead exposure, mostly caused by pollution from battery factories and metal smelters. The cases underscore a pattern of government neglect seen in industry after industry as China strives for headlong growth with only embryonic safeguards.
Chasing the political dividends of economic development, local officials regularly overlook environmental contamination, worker safety and dangers to public health until forced to confront them by episodes like the Haijiu factory riot.
A report by Human Rights Watch released Wednesday states that some local officials have reacted to mass poisonings by arbitrarily 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, the organization's health and human rights director, said in an interview. "It really has affected a whole generation of kids."
In more developed nations, where lead pollution has been tightly regulated for decades, a pattern of lead poisoning like China's would most likely be deemed a public-health emergency.
High levels can damage the brain, kidney, liver, nerves and stomach and, in extreme cases, cause death. Children are particularly susceptible because they absorb lead more easily than adults.
"No blood lead level has been found to be safe for a child," Dr. Mary Jean Brown, chief of the lead poisoning prevention branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in an interview last week.
Here, Chinese leaders have acknowledged that lead contamination is a grave issue and have raised the priority of reducing heavy-metal pollution in 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 government's response remains faltering.
At a meeting last month of China's State Council, after yet another disclosure of mass poisoning, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao scolded Environmental Minister Zhou Shengxian for the lack of progress, according to an individual with high-level government ties who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The government has not ordered a nationwide survey of children's blood lead levels, so the number of children who are at risk is purely a matter of guesswork. Mass poisonings like that at the Haijiu factory typically come to light only after suspicious parents seek hospital tests, then alert neighbors or co-workers to the alarming results.
The few published studies point to a huge problem. One 2001 research paper called lead poisoning one of the most common pediatric health problems in China. A 2006 review of existing data suggested that one-third of Chinese children suffer from elevated blood lead levels.
Liu Kaifang, 6, drinks his daily vial of calcium and zinc solution -- the only medication the local hospital prescribed scores of children in the area found to have high lead levels in their blood.
Sun Guotai, 5, was among 99 children living close to a lead acid battery factory in the central Chinese province of Zhejiang found to have high lead levels in their blood.
The state Health Ministry said in 2006 that a nationwide test for children was unnecessary because their blood lead levels had been falling. But since then, a new source of lead pollution - factories that produce lead-acid batteries for electric bikes, motorcycles and cars - has emerged with a vengeance.
The industry has grown by 20 percent a year for the past five or six years, and is expected to expand further, according to Wang Jingzhong, vice director of the China Battery Industry Association. China now has some 2,000 factories and 1,000 battery-recycling plants. For regulators, Mr. Wang said, "It is a chaotic situation."
Enforcement is spotty at best. Shen Yulin, the environmental protection director for Deqing County, where the Haijiu factory is located, said 65 inspectors were responsible for a region of nearly 400 square miles, with more than 2,000 factories.
Haijiu breezed through six years of inspections, even though many workers say they were repeatedly hospitalized for lead poisoning. Only after last month's protest did authorities criticize the plant for a host of violations and order the plant closed and production lines razed.
At a press conference this month, Li Ganjie, the vice minister for environmental protection, said that every suspected case of lead poisoning is fully investigated and that "the people involved, whether they are children or adults, are well-tested and treated."
Interviews over the past month with 20 families in Henan and Zhejiang Provinces indicate otherwise. Near Jiyuan City, in Henan Province, nearly 1,000 children from 10 villages were found to have elevated blood lead levels in 2009. Government officials ordered the children treated, families relocated and the smelters cleaned up.
But a recent visitor found children still playing in the streets of one village literally in the shadow of a privately-owned lead smelter that nightly belches plumes of dark smoke. In interviews, their parents and grandparents said that local hospitals now refuse to administer new blood lead level tests, even if the families pay out of their own pockets.
"The children are not healthy. We don't know how sick they are, and we can't find out," said one 66-year-old villager whose two grandsons were found to have blood lead levels two and three times above the norm when tested in 2009.
Local officials appeared determined to suppress such complaints. Within a few hours of a visitor's arrival this month, Jiyuan City's propaganda chief appeared with three carloads of plainclothes officers, bringing all reporting and interviewing to a screeching halt.
That would not surprise Ye Cai'e, who lives near the Suji battery factory in Zhejiang Province, 200 miles southeast of Mengxi. After tests showed 53 children and 120 adults suffered from excessive lead levels, Ms. Ye said that local officials said: "Whoever makes noise will not receive compensation or medical treatment."
Migrant workers and their families were also left out of the program, villagers said. Yang Fufen, 40, said her 2-year-old son tested at more than three times the allowable blood lead level in March, but has received no medical attention, apparently because her legal residence is elsewhere.
At the Haijiu Battery Factory, which exports to the United States, regulation of lead emissions was not so much lax as nonexistent.
The factory's opening in 2005 brought more than 1,000 jobs. Local authorities allowed the plant to expand to within a rice paddy of the village. They also ignored the breakdown of ventilation equipment and the building of a hostel for workers and their spouses and children on factory grounds.
Workers say managers simply slowed down production lines when inspectors came. One worker said he had watched a supervisor cover a device that tests for lead emissions in the air with his cap, then whisk the inspectors away for tea.
It did not take long for problems to surface. Workers said they repeatedly had tested above the occupational limit for blood lead levels and were sent to the local hospital, where drugs were injected intravenously to reduce the level and toxicity of lead in their bodies.
Zhou Zuyin, 42, said he was hospitalized for treatment of lead poisoning every year for four years, returning each time to his job of smoothing the edges of lead sheets. Even after a test revealed liver damage, he said, "The factory said it was normal."
He said his biggest worry now is his 13-year-old son's health. A blood test showed the boy had nearly double what China considers a safe lead level. "He is getting more and more scared," Mr. Zhou said. "I don't know what to say to him. I just feel totally powerless."
Zhao Guogeng, vice president of Zhejiang Haijiu Battery Co., said the company is covering the medical bills of lead victims. Authorities said the factory's legal representative has been arrested and eight officials disciplined. "This will never happen again," Zhang Linhua, spokesman for Deqing County, declared last Thursday.
Maybe not there. But not three days later came a dispatch from a town 55 miles southeast of Mengxi Village: 103 children and 26 adults were found to be severely poisoned by lead pollution from tinfoil processing plants, according to China's official Xinhua news agency. Moderately poisoned: 494.
Chiyin Sim contributed reporting from Mengxi and Jonathan Ansfield contributed reporting from Beijing. Mia Li, Shao Heng and Adam Century contributed research from Beijing.
Lead-poisoned Chinese denied care: rights body
By Peter Brieger
15 June 2011
HONG KONG - Chinese officials in provinces with heavy industrial pollution are restricting access to lead testing or even falsifying test results, and denying children treatment, a US rights group said on Wednesday.
Human Rights Watch accused officials in four provinces -- Henan, Yunnan, Shaanxi and Hunan -- of trying to cover up the extent of lead poisoning among local children, including limiting their access to blood tests.
"Local authorities are ignoring the urgent and long-term health consequences of a generation of children continuously exposed to life-threatening levels of lead," said the study, entitled: My Children Have Been Poisoned: A Public Health Crisis in Four Chinese Provinces.
Excessive levels of lead in the blood are considered hazardous, particularly to children, who can experience stunted growth and mental retardation.
"But there is not a real recognition of the fact that lead poisoning causes lifelong disability," Joe Amon, director of the group's health and human rights division, told a news briefing in Hong Kong.
"This is creating a generation of kids... who will be less able to drive the economic growth that China is counting on."
The report estimated that "hundreds of thousands" of children, mainly in poor rural villages with nearby factories, were suffering from lead poisoning.
Despite Beijing's promises of reform, many local and provincial officials were conflicted over their mandate to drive economic growth while enforcing environmental standards on factories, Amon added.
Rapid industrialisation over the past 30 years which has driven China's rise to become the number two economy has left it with some of the world's worst water and air pollution, stoking widespread environmental damage and public-health scares.
HRW said test results were sometimes withheld from victims and their families, while children with high lead levels in their blood were denied care or simply instructed to eat "cleansing" foods such as apples, garlic, milk and eggs.
"The bottom line is that lead (poisoning) cannot be addressed by garlic," Amon said.
Family members and journalists seeking information about the problem are intimidated, harassed and ultimately silenced, the report added.
Earlier this month, more than 600 people, including 103 children, in east China's Zhejiang province were found with high and sometimes dangerous levels of lead in their blood, according to local health authorities.
The poisonings were linked to tinfoil processing plants in Shaoxing county and reportedly prompted protests on June 8 and 9, with villagers demanding that workshops violating health and environmental standards be shut down.
In May, authorities in Zhejiang detained 74 people and suspended work at hundreds of factories after 172 people, including 53 children, fell ill due to lead.
Nearly 1,000 children tested positive for lead poisoning in the central province of Henan in 2009 with local smelting plants found to be responsible.
The Chinese government has enforced environmental regulations aimed at curbing pollution and protecting public health in recent years.
But enforcement has been uneven and little has been done to reduce lead levels in villages that are already heavily contaminated, HRW said.
According to Xinhua news agency, the government has pledged to crack down on the industry and ensure that those suffering from lead poisoning receive proper health care and subsidies.
To access the Human Rights Report go to: http://www.hrw.org/en/reports/2011/06/15/my-children-have-been-poisoned
When pollution fees are merely the cost of doing business
By John Gong
9 June 2011
HEAVY metal pollution is a serious concern in China, with nine incidents of lead poisoning occurring last year, and seven more already occurring by the end of May this year.
The most severe heavy metal pollution case so far is pointed out in a study by Professor Pan Genxing at Nanjing Agricultural University, showing that 10 percent of China's rice market, and more than 60 percent of rice grown in some southern provinces, may contain high levels of cadmium. Long-term exposure to cadmium can damage the lungs, blood, heart and kidneys.
This is no exaggeration; if you live in one of the southern provinces in China, there's more than a 50 percent chance that you will develop cadmium-related diseases by the time you enter your fifties.
A friend once told me that the whole Chinese population is engaged in a long-term chronic suicide mission, as the country continues to go down this growth path, where food safety scandals run rampant, and the environmental regulations are lax.
The central government seems to be determined to address both issues. There have been a series of stringent measures released recently to clean up the food industry.
On the environment, Vice Minister of Environmental Protection Li Ganjie said at a recent press conference that the State Council had just approved a plan for the treatment and reduction of heavy metal pollution for the period between 2011 and 2015.
He said severe measures will be imposed on industries involving high heavy metal use, such as the management of lead storage batteries and the secondary lead industry. That is all fine. But typically in China, results do not quite match up with rhetoric.
As local officials put economic development ahead of environmental protection, relevant regulatory authorities often lack the resources and the political will to enforce the central government's mandates.
All environmental protection agencies in China officially have a budget. But like many government agencies in China, they have to find other resources for funding. And an important source of revenue is pollution fees, which is meant to penalize polluters with manufacturing licenses so that they would invest in technologies to reduce pollution and thus avoid paying future penalties.
Sounds like a good idea, right?
The situation is very similar to the traffic authority ticketing illegally parking on the street where I live. They occasionally come over to ticket a few cars, but they never seem determined to ticket all the illegally parked cars and clean up the entire street.
So people continue to park illegally as usual, as if the occasional tickets are just the normal cost of parking - they certainly beat the cost of buying a monthly parking space.
And I thought hard about this phenomenon, and it strikes me as an economist as perfectly rational on both sides.
Revenue from fines
This is indeed market equilibrium!
From the traffic authority's perspective, they have no incentives to clean up the entire street once and for all, because if they do, although one-time ticket revenue will increase dramatically, they would almost certain lose significant revenue from fines in the future.
One cleaned up street means one fewer source of ticketing revenues. So they would always come occasionally to ticket a few cars to show their presence.
From the drivers' perspective, it makes even more sense accepting a reasonable chance of being ticketed is just part of the normal cost of cheaper illegal parking.
I suspect the situation involving pollution fees is more or less the same. The local environmental protection agencies need fees to supplement their budget, while enterprises paying the fees consider them part of the normal cost of doing business.
Neither side, I mean the regulator and the regulated, has any incentive to change the status quo, and to make a significant investment to reduce pollution. It is just the silent public footing the bill.
Another source of pollution is what I call judgment-proof companies. These are newly set up small companies without much in the way of assets and they don't feel they have much to lose if they are caught violating the environmental protection laws.
There have been many cases involving such companies, in which the damages caused are many times more than what the companies can offer in compensation, even if there is a severe court judgment against them. They simply close their doors, and move on to fleece the next sucker.
The combination of small companies and the potentially large environmental hazard costs creates the phenomenon of these judgment-proof companies, that is, companies which pollute as they like but do not have sufficient assets to compensate the victims, and are ready to close the doors at any moment.
How to deal with these rogue companies? I offer two solutions. One is to pass legislation to prosecute key executives of such companies. Criminalizing such behavior, even where there is lack of intent to cause harm or simply negligence, is justified in some Western countries. Another measure is to hold these companies' creditors liable. Asset-less companies can't operate without borrowed money.
So the idea is to make the risk lenders face not only the costs stemming from their borrowers' environmental liabilities and the loss of loans because of diminution of collateral's value, but from the possible direct civil liability against themselves as well.
This will make creditors think twice about financing unscrupulous ventures that put the environment at risk. The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act in the United States is essentially based on this theory.
The author is an associate professor of economics at the Beijing-based University of International Business and Economics.
Challenges in environmental protection still serious
By Wang Qian
4 June 2011
China admitted that it is facing serious challenges in environmental protection, including pollution from toxic metals aggravating the public and a severely unsafe underground water supply.
"We have entered a period when sudden incidents impacting the environment or pollution accidents are occurring frequently and when environmental pollution is daily causing social contradictions," Li Ganjie, vice-minister of environmental protection, said in a press conference in Beijing on Friday.
During the 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015), the country will give priority to environment issues involving drinking water, air pollution, heavy metal pollution and soil pollution, Li said.
Unsafe underground water, frequent lead poisoning incidents and escalating damage to environmental protection zones are all testing the country's fragile environment.
According to the country's latest environmental assessment report in 2010, more than half of China's cities are affected by acid rain. About 40 percent of major rivers are so polluted that the water can only be used for industrial purposes or landscaping. About 16 percent of the total is unfit for agricultural irrigation.
The current drought affecting the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River has exacerbated pollution in the lakes and tributaries in the river basin, many of which were already badly polluted, Li said.
The report said an investigation of the underground water of 182 cities across the country showed more than 57 percent of the tested underground water samples are classified as "bad" or "extremely bad" in quality.
The waters off the booming cities of Shanghai, Tianjin and Guangzhou were rated as severely polluted, with only stretches around the resort island of Hainan and parts of the northern coast given a totally clean bill of health, Li said.
Just 3.6 percent of the 471 cities monitored got top ratings for air cleanliness, and there was a continued loss of biodiversity around the country, Li added.
Besides the air and water pollution in cities, heavy metal pollution was also a big concern, threatening people's health and causing social instability.
Last year, China witnessed 14 major heavy metal pollution incidents, including nine involving lead poisoning. From January to May this year, seven others occurred, Li said.
He added that the State Council, or China's cabinet, recently approved a plan for the treatment and reduction of heavy metal pollution for the 2011-2015 period.
The fast economic development is not only harming quality of water, air and soil, but also damaging the country's last "clean" zone, environment protection zones with about 22 percent of them affected, Li said, adding coal industry is the main polluting source.
The government has begun a month-long crackdown on the coal industry and vowed to punish the mines which damage the environment or seriously affect residents.
As the world eyes the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant following Japan's disastrous earthquake and tsunami in March, China also learned a "hard lesson from it", Li said.
He said China needs an independent regulator for nuclear safety, supported by strong technology and sufficient money, and called on nuclear supervision agencies around the world to share timely information on the subject.
Safety standards for the nuclear industry need to be raised, especially to prepare for potential extreme weather and geological disasters, according to Li.