Leading leaden lives

Updated: 2014-08-06 07:04

By Hou Liqiang and Feng Zhiwei (China Daily USA)

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Children in a township with a chemical factory are suffering from excessive amounts of lead, report Hou Liqiang and Feng Zhiwei in Hengdong county, Hunan province.

Cheng Xiaomin is 20, but she is only a bit taller than an average 8-year-old.

Extremely thin and tanned, she also suffers from a mental disability.

 Leading leaden lives

Cheng Chun'e, a resident who lives near a chemical factory in Dapu township, Hengdong county of Hunan province, displays tainted leaves near her house on July 5. Despite rain on the previous night, industrial pollutants are still palpable on the leaves. Photos by Hou Liqiang / China Daily

 Leading leaden lives

Cheng Xiaomin (center), 20, suffers from physical and mental disabilities.

"She knows how to wash her face and eat, but only after we ask her to do so. She cannot do any housework. Nobody plays with her, and she spends most of the time at home," said the woman's grandfather, Cheng Xuqiu, 74.

"Every day, she is either walking about aimlessly or sleeping."

But Cheng said his granddaughter was not always like this. She became so only after 2009 when a chemical factory, Meilun Chemical Materials , started to produce electrolytic zinc for industrial use, he said.

"After the factory started producing the material, dust from the site accumulated on our windowsill. It exuded bad smells," said the resident of Dapu township in Hengdong county, Hunan province.

At least five residents said that Cheng Xiaomin did not suffer from any disability before 2009.

In 2012, a blood test showed lead levels in Cheng's body hitting 136 micrograms per liter.

Based on national health standards, the level of lead in the blood for children should not be more than 100 micrograms per liter.

The accumulation of lead in the human body can damage the nervous system and cause anemia.

If lead levels in children exceed the national standard, their intelligence, physical growth, learning ability and hearing can be impaired.

Worried that Cheng Xiaomin's younger brother might also be affected, family members took him to Shanghai, where his parents work.

In June, State broadcaster CCTV reported the situation faced by residents of the 40,000-strong township, and authorities soon suspended the production of the factory.

Cheng Xuqiu said he has spent more than 10,000 yuan ($1,600) taking his granddaughter to hospitals for treatment, but doctors only gave some medicine and suggested that he take her back home for treatment.

"I don't know what to do," Cheng Xuqiu said.

According to a name list provided by a resident named Yi Xinhuai, more than 300 children in Dapu suffer from excessive amounts of lead. Most of the children were tested for the lead in 2012.

While the lead levels of most children on the list are less than 200 micrograms per liter, some hit more than 400 micrograms per liter. But most do not have symptoms as serious as Cheng Xiaomin.

According to a statement provided to China Daily by the Hengdong government, 92 children were found to have excessive amounts of lead following tests organized by authorities in June.

The statement said 315 of 708 children living 600 meters around the factory took part in the tests.

Yi Xinhuai said he had managed to get some of the factory's raw material for testing in an agency in Hengyang, to which Hengdong is subordinate.

The results showed that the material contained 17.46 percent of lead and 13.14 percent of zinc, he claimed. Yi also claimed that guards at the factory injured him when he obtained the material.

The owner of the factory is under police investigation and could not be reached for comment.

Leading leaden lives

Children of the factory's executives were first found to be suffering from excessive amounts of lead in 2012, Yi said. The news spread like wildfire in the town. Many parents took their children for blood tests and found that they suffered from high lead amounts, Yi said.

Cause 'not confirmed'

Wen Xing, deputy head of Hengdong's publicity department, said the cause of the lead levels remains unconfirmed.

"The South China Environmental Protection Supervision Center said it may be caused by the dust from the raw materials of the factory. The raw materials were not covered properly," Wen said.

"The factory is only suspected of causing the problem. No conclusions have been made," Wen said.

When CCTV tested the dust accumulated on the windowsill of the Cheng Chun'e, another resident who lives near the factory in Dapu, results showed lead levels of 7,780 milligrams per kg.

That is more than 20 times the safe level stipulated for residential land, which is 350 milligram per kg.

Following the CCTV report, Wu Shuilin, head of the area's environment protection inspection team, and another two officials have been suspended from their duties.

Wu said his team has conducted at least 38 inspections at the factory since 2012.

"We found some small problems in the factory and gave them deadlines to rectify those," he said.

The factory's production has been "related" to lead amounts since it started operations in the 1970s, Wu said.

Affected areas

Research conducted by a team under Lyu Zhongmei, president of Hubei University of Economics, found that 44 lead pollution incidents and 19 cadmium pollution incidents occurred in China from January 2004 to December 2013.

While the team found that 80 percent of those pollution incidents occurred in underdeveloped areas like Dapu, they also found that environmental protection authorities failed to detect them.

Ma Jun, head of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, an NGO that researches pollution in China, said it is more possible for such incidents to occur in the areas because of the relationship between enterprises and local government.

"In those underdeveloped areas, enterprises are an important source of local government revenue. This puts the local environmental protection bureaus in an awkward position," Ma said.

"The county leadership may interfere with the environmental protection bureau's work. As officials of the bureau are appointed by the county leadership, they may be removed from their posts if they don't listen to the county leadership," Ma said.

Ma said factories will not receive much punishment even if residents report their environmental wrongdoing, adding that people in those areas rarely take part in the environmental evaluation and monitoring processes of polluting enterprises.

"The problem can only be rooted out if local people fully participate in these processes," he said.

Contact the writers at houliqiang@chinadaily.com.cn

(China Daily USA 08/06/2014 page7)