In a report a US-based rights body says China tried to cover up the extent of lead poisoning among children as well as discouraging tests.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in its report on Wednesday that in heavily-polluted industrial areas local authorities have been sending children suffering from lead poisoning back to their contaminated homes. (map, from nytimes.com)
According to a human rights advocacy group they have also been denied testing, effective treatment and basic information by officials.
HRW also claims that officials in some provinces were falsifying test results.
103 children and scores and adults were poisoned by tinfoil-making workshops in eastern Zhejiang province, in the latest lead pollution outbreak in China.
Officials in four provinces, Henan, Yunnan, Shaanxi and Hunan, are accused by HRW of trying to cover up the extent of lead poisoning among local children.
“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.”
The Chinese government made no immediate response to the report.
China is the world’s biggest consumer of refined lead with battery making accounting for 70 per cent of that consumption, which is likely to grow to 4.1m tonnes in 2011.
According to an industry body in the next two to three years three-quarters of lead-acid battery manufacturing plants in the country could be phased out.
But according to the report leaders in Beijing are struggling to control local officials who put jobs and economic growth ahead of environmental protection.
‘Cognitively and physically disabled children’
Lead is especially harmful for children, it can lead to learning difficulties and behavioural problems. But lead poisoning can also build up through regular exposure to small amounts, damaging the nervous and reproductive systems and kidneys, as well as causing high blood pressure and anaemia.
“In villages where lead exposure is highest, a generation of cognitively and physically disabled children will need significant and ongoing support,” the report said.
Lead poisoning often comes from smelting or recycling plants.
Although Beijing has vowed to clean up the chronic pollution, reports of poisoning are still widespread and HRW says hundreds of thousands of children are suffering from it, initiating public anger and protests.
“I want to know how sick my son is, but I can’t trust the local test results,” one mother from Hunan province in southern China told investigators, according to the report available on the HRW website.
Anyone who complains is being harassed, said the HRW, citing dozens of interviews with parents in areas afflicted by pollution.
In a statement Joe Amon, health and human rights director at Human Rights Watch, said : “Parents, journalists, and community activists who dare to speak out about lead are detained, harassed, and ultimately silenced.”
Corruption and cover-up
Based on interviews conducted with 52 parents and grandparents whose children or grandchildren have lead poisoning, and five journalists who had reported on the subject, the report shows that parents often had little understanding of why their children did not grow properly, had anaemia or hearing loss.
“They didn’t know what was happening,” Mr Amon told the BBC.
“They took their kids into the clinic. They were told they lived too far from the factory to get tested for lead, or they were told the kids had lead in their blood but there was nothing that could be done for it.”
The advocacy group also said that parents were often told that drinking milk or eating garlic and eggs was adequate treatment for lead poisoning.
“The doctor told us all the children in this village have lead poisoning. Then they told us a few months later that all the children are healthy. They wouldn’t let us see the results from the tests though,” the report quotes a parent from Yunnan province as saying.
“The government doesn’t want to have to give us anything so they make up the results [of the lead tests],” another parent from Henan province said.
The corruption and cover-up of lead poisoning cases throughout China has been compared by Human Rights Watch to the high-profile AIDS and SARs scandals. In the 1990s and early 2000s they shattered international confidence in China’s public health administration.
“The response to lead poisoning has so far followed this same road, but it is not too late for the Chinese government to take a different approach,” the report said.