MERCURY, LEAD POISONING, CANCER VILLAGES AND POLLUTED AGRICULTURAL AREAS IN CHINA

POLLUTED AGRICULTURAL AREAS IN CHINA

Josh Chin and Brian Spegele wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “China's Bad Earth Industrialization has turned much of the Chinese countryside into an environmental disaster zone, threatening not only the food supply but the legitimacy of the regime itself. In Dapu, a rain-drenched rural outpost in the heart of China's grain basket, a farmer grows crops that she wouldn't dare to eat.A state-backed chemicals factory next to her farm dumps wastewater directly into the local irrigation pond, she says, and turns it a florescent blue reminiscent of antifreeze. After walking around in the rice paddies, some farmers here have developed unexplained blisters on their feet. [Source: by Josh Chin and Brian Spegele, Wall Street Journal, July 27, 2013 /=/]

"Nothing comes from these plants," says the farmer, pointing past the irrigation pond to a handful of stunted rice shoots. She grows the rice, which can't be sold because of its low quality, only in order to qualify for payments made by the factory owners to compensate for polluting the area. But the amount is only a fraction of what she used to earn when the land was healthy, she says. The plants look alive, "but they're actually dead inside." /=/

“The experiences of these farmers in Dapu, in central China's Hunan province, highlight an emerging and critical front in China's intensifying battle with pollution. For years, public attention has focused on the choking air and contaminated water that plague China's ever-expanding cities. But a series of recent cases have highlighted the spread of pollution outside of urban areas, now encompassing vast swaths of countryside, including the agricultural heartland. /=/

Estimates from state-affiliated researchers say that anywhere between 8 percent and 20 percent of China's arable land, some 25 to 60 million acres, may now be contaminated with heavy metals. A loss of even 5 percent could be disastrous, taking China below the "red line" of 296 million acres of arable land that are currently needed, according to the government, to feed the country's 1.35 billion people. Criticism even came from the Communist Party's flagship paper, People's Daily, which posted a message to its microblog that read: "Covering this up only makes people think: I'm being lied to." /=/

Cadmium-Tainted Rice

In March 2013, authorities southern China's Guangdong province revealed that eight out of 18 samples in a survey of local rice supplies had been found to contain excessive levels of cadmium, a heavy metal that can damage the kidneys and cause severe bone pain. Josh Chin and Brian Spegele wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “Officials didn't say where the cadmium came from, though the rice itself was grown in nearby Hunan province, they said. Cadmium is generally associated with mining and the smelting of metals like zinc and lead, as well as battery manufacturing, all of which are common in Hunan. [Source: by Josh Chin and Brian Spegele, Wall Street Journal, July 27, 2013 /=/]

“Social media users expressed anger and dismissed two subsequent provincewide investigations that showed excessive levels of cadmium in only 5.8 percent and 1.4 percent of rice supplies. "First water, then the air we breathe, and now the earth. How can people still survive?" wrote one user on Sina Weibo, a popular Twitter-like microblogging service. "I suppose we can always move abroad or to outer space." /=/

"Chinese people have a very deep connection to rice," adds Liu Jianqiang, a former investigative reporter who now serves as the Beijing-based editor of China Dialogue, a nonprofit media organization that tracks environmental issues. "If you discover some vegetable or fruit is poisoned, you can say 'I won't eat it.' But rice you can't avoid." /=/

“It is difficult to say how extensive Hunan's cadmium problem is, just as it is hard to pinpoint exactly where the cadmium in any batch of tainted rice comes from. In one of a handful of small studies done on heavy-metal pollution in the area, published in 2008, Nanjing Agricultural University professor Pan Gengxing found 60 percent of rice bought in markets in a number of southern provinces, including Hunan, contained cadmium in excess of China's national standards. /=/

That survey, however, was based on only 61 samples. Also, China's maximum allowable cadmium standard, 0.20 milligrams per kilogram of rice, is twice as strict as the widely used international standard. Studies have shown that Hunan rice is also polluted with excessive arsenic and lead, and that some of the rice has made it into markets.

Causes of Polluted Agricultural Areas in China

Josh Chin and Brian Spegele wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “Rural China's toxic turn is largely a consequence of two trends, say environmental researchers: the expansion of polluting industries into remote areas a safe distance from population centers, and heavy use of chemical fertilizers to meet the country's mounting food needs. Both changes have been driven by the rapid pace of urbanization in a country that in 2012, for the first time in its long history, had more people living in cities than outside of them. [Source: by Josh Chin and Brian Spegele, Wall Street Journal, July 27, 2013 /=/]

“Yet the effort to keep urbanites comfortable and well-fed has also led to the poisoning of parts of the food chain, and some of the pollution is traveling back to the cities in a different—and for many, more frightening—guise. "Pollution can be displaced only to an extent. You can't put walls around it," says Judith Shapiro, the U.S.-based author of the recent book "China's Environmental Challenges." She is one of a number of researchers and environmental activists—including many in China—who warn that pollution poses an existential threat to the current regime. It is, she says, "perhaps the single most significant determinant of whether the Communist Party will maintain its legitimacy in coming years." /=/

“China has long sought to industrialize its countryside, dating to Mao's disastrous Great Leap Forward beginning in 1958, when he sought rapid industrialization by urging peasants to set up backyard steel furnaces at the expense of agricultural output. The cumulative impact of decades of building up rural industry is now taking an environmental toll, particularly as industrial growth surges forward in China's breadbasket. In the once agrarian provinces of Hunan and Hubei, industrial activity rose more than threefold from 2007 to 2011, far outpacing industrial growth in powerhouse Guangdong. /=/

“In some cases, factories are moving to the countryside to take advantage of cheaper land, often made available with the help of local officials who want to boost growth, environmental researchers say. In other cases, urban leaders want factories to move out of crowded cities. The ensuing problems of rural pollution are exacerbated by the fact that many small-town governments have less capacity to properly regulate complex industrial activities than their counterparts in big cities, experts say. /=/

And then there are the pressures being placed on China's farmland by the overuse of chemical fertilizers. Mr. Zhuang, of the environment ministry, said at his recent news conference that only 35 percent of the fertilizer used in China was being properly absorbed by crops. The remaining 65 percent, he said, was being discharged as pollution that was seriously tainting China's farmland. Runoff of nitrogen fertilizer, among the most widely-used varieties in China, can contaminate water sources and lead to soil acidification, soil erosion and lower crop yields. "If things carry on this way, the soil will be unable to bear it, the environment unable to bear it. It's a real problem," said Mr. Zhuang. /=/

Between 2000 and 2011, the use of chemical fertilizer—pushed by the country's exploding demand for staples such as rice—rose 38 percent, to more than 57 million tons a year, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. Such growth far outpaced the growth of total irrigated farmland, which rose only about 15 percent during the same period. /=/

Pollution in Agricultural Areas in Hunan

Josh Chin and Brian Spegele wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “Today, many of the country's rural dilemmas are most visible in Hunan province, the source of the cadmium-tainted rice discovered in Guangzhou. China's top rice producer, Hunan grew nearly 26 million tons of unmilled rice, almost 13 percent of China's total, in 2011. Hunan's central role in feeding China is encapsulated in a proverb that dates back more than 400 years to the late Ming Dynasty, when the province had a different name: "When Huguang reaps its harvest, all under Heaven want for nothing."[Source: by Josh Chin and Brian Spegele, Wall Street Journal, July 27, 2013 /=/]

“In recent decades, however, Hunan has also become one of the country's top five producers of nonferrous metals like copper and lead, with mines and smelters that accounted for 7.5 percent of the country's nonferrous metals in 2012, according to Wall Street Journal calculations based on provincial and national statistics. "You have farms next to mountains where mining is happening, and not enough attention is placed on environmental protection," says Chen Nengchang, a soil remediation expert with the Guangdong Institute of Environmental and Soil Sciences. But it is difficult to say how extensive Hunan's cadmium problem is, just as it is hard to pinpoint exactly where the cadmium in any batch of tainted rice comes from./=/

Cancer Villages and Deformed Babies in China

Increases in cancer rates of 19 percent in urban areas and 23 percent in rural area have been blamed on air and water pollution.

The most awful and shameful examples of how bad China’s pollution has become are the so-called cancer villages, where pollution in the water and air is blamed for surges in cancer rates. One such place is Yangqiao, a town in the wetlands of southeastern China that has been so fouled by the waste from chemical plants, the air is acrid and make people dizzy and yellow waste water seeps into irrigation ditches, producing sick dogs, dead fish, stunted crops and high cancer rates.

In March 2006, 130 people were hospitalized outside the city of Ningbo in Zhejiang Province in eastern China following a leak of poisonous gas from a chemical plant. Villagers reported seeing a cloud of gas floating across farmland killing crops and poultry and several days later began experiencing dizziness, sore throats, chest pains and skin irritation.

Pollution is also blamed for the increase in the number of deformed children in places where pollution levels are high. Babies born with deformities such as cleft palates, neural tube defects, congenital heart disease, water on the brain, and extra fingers and toes is up 6 percent a year nationwide---and 40 percent between 2001 and 2006---with rates much higher in place like the major coal-mining areas of Shanxi Province.

Shanxi is home to the world’s three most polluted cities. In addition to coal mining there is pollution from coke, steel and chemical industries. It also lead the world in the incidents of cleft palates and extra fingers among babies. Some parents whose children are born with extra toes cut them off so it is easier to buy shoes.

The river that flows through the village of Shangba in Guangdong Province is polluted by heavy metals. It varies in color from murky white to bright orange and is so viscous that it barely moves when winds blow on it. One villager told AP, “All the fish died, even chickens and ducks that drank the water died. If you put your leg in the water, you’ll get rashes and a terrible itch...Last years alone, six people in our villages died from cancer, and they were in their 30s and 40s.” Two girls, who often played in the river died at the ages of 12 and 18 from kidney and stomach cancer, which are rare among you people.

The source of much of the pollution is the state-owned Daboshan mine, which produces huge piles of tailing discarded next to rice fields and dumps large amounts of cadmium, a known carcinogen, as well as lead, zinc, indium and other metals into water supplies. Tests have shown high levels of cadmium and zinc in the drinking water and the rice. Stomach, liver kidney and colon cancer account for 85 percent of the cancers acquired by villagers.

Publicity on Shangba’s plight convinced the government to help foot the bill for a new reservoir and water system for the town. Liangqiao is a village contaminated by the same mine. The local river has a reddish color. Since the late 1990s cancer has caused two thirds of the deaths in the village. One villager there told Time, “We have to use the polluted water to irrigate our fields, since we don’t have any money to start a water project. We know very well that we are being poisoned by eating the grain. What more can we do? We can’t just wait to starve to death.”

China Home to 247 Cancer Villages

In February 2013, Xu Chi wrote in the Shanghai Daily, “China has more than 247 "cancer villages" throughout the mainland, according to a map that is being widely circulated on the Internet. The map caught the public's attention after the Ministry of Environmental Protection admitted earlier this month the existence of such villages and said pollution was to blame for high cancer rates among their residents. The map was said to have been drawn up by a Chinese university student after research into data and media reports. Although such villages are found in around 27 regions, many of them are located in central Henan and eastern Jiangsu provinces. The number of such villages is a sharp increase compared to another widely circulated map published by social activist Deng Fei several years ago. Deng identified just over 100 "cancer villages." [Source: Xu Chi, Shanghai Daily, February 25, 2013]

In Yangqiao Village of Yancheng City in Jiangsu, more than 20 villagers have been reported as dying of cancer, mainly from lung and esophageal cancers, from 2001 to 2004. The pollution in the air was so bad, it was reported, that villagers had to cover their mouths and noses with wet towels when sleeping. In Dongjin Village in the same city, nearly 100 villagers were said to have died of cancer from 2001 to 2006 as the result of pollution caused by a chemical company. The firm offered 70 yuan (US$11) to each villager as "subsidy" after it was sued by victims, China Business Journal reported. In a village in Henan, a total of 79 villagers died of cancer in four years after a growing number of paper manufacturing factories discharged industrial waste into river, turning it as black as ink.

The environmental ministry said China was still producing and using toxic chemicals which were banned in some developed countries because of their threat to human health and the environment. "Various chemicals have been detected in some rivers, lakes and inshore waters, as well as in animals and human bodies in recent years," the ministry said. "Toxic chemicals have caused several environment emergencies linking to water and air pollution. Drinking water crises hit many regions while 'cancer villages' and other severe cases of health and social problems emerged in some other regions," the ministry said.

Josh Chin and Brian Spegele wrote in the Wall Street Journal, In January 2013 “Xinhua highlighted the dangers of hazardous chemical waste in rural areas by profiling Zekou, described by environmentalists as a "cancer village" in the central province of Hubei. Residents blame a nearby industrial park for more than 60 recent cancer-related deaths, most of them of people under the age of 50. [Source: by Josh Chin and Brian Spegele, Wall Street Journal, July 27, 2013 /=/]

“The Ministry of Environmental Protection publicly acknowledged the existence of such "cancer villages"—which have unusually high rates of cancer and, according to nongovernmental organizations and researchers, number in the hundreds—for the first time a month later. In March, state media reported that 168 villagers who live near a battery factory in the eastern province of Zhejiang were discovered to have elevated levels of lead in their blood, the latest in a stream of rural lead-poisoning cases tied to battery and smelting facilities. /=/

Football-Field-Size Toxic Waste Dump and Mass Animal Death

In April 2013, Xinhua reported: “Local authorities said that pigs and dogs that were found dead in a village in Central China's Henan province died from respiratory failure due to inhaling toxic gas. A total of 410 pigs and 122 dogs were found dead in the village of Dongtun in the city of Yanshi. The No.1 Hospital affiliated with the Henan University of Science and Technology said test results showed that the animals died from respiratory failure. A local medical manufacturing plant has been under investigation for allegedly causing toxic gas leaks. However, the gas that killed the animals has not been identified and it is unknown whether the plant had any part in their deaths.Some villagers claimed that the factory has been emitting a strong odor for more than ten years. They said the smell was particularly strong Monday morning.Test results from local environmental authorities indicate that the area's air and drinking water are clean. [Source: Xinhua, April 19, 2013]

On a toxic dump near Beijing, Leo Lewis wrote in The Times, “Uniformed guards watch the road junctions. Official cars lurk at the bottom of country lanes. Villagers plead ignorance. Journalists have been banned. The secret of Bingmaying would be safe were it not for the pervasive, eye-stinging stench and the endless procession of reeking lorries.This village north east of Beijing sits in a mountainous beauty spot, but behind it lies an illegal dump the size of a football pitch and as high as a four-storey building. “Nobody knows when the dump started operating, but now the air is truly terrible,” one villager said. [Source: Leo Lewis, The Times, February 27, 2013]

However, the most immediate worry is water contamination. The dump, recently revealed by environmental activists, is upstream of the Miyun reservoir, which provides two thirds of the tap water for Beijing’s 20 million residents. In Bingmaying, a man with a “public security” armband, drafted in to help to oversee the rubbish removal, said: “Of course I am worried about health. Everyone is. It is dry now, but in the rainy season the water will wash the poisons from the dump into the soil.”

Local officials, fearing repercussions for allowing the illegal dump to grow — and the attentions of water inspectors — are scrambling to undo the environmental crime. Over the past 48 hours, the usual flow of rubbish from Beijing and Hebei into Bingmaying has stopped. Instead, lorries roar down the village’s single street rushing foetid loads away from the site to a location no one dares to disclose. But the dump still dominates, and the soil, whisper residents, has already absorbed unspeakable toxins.

Locals fear that Bingmaying will join China’s growing list of 200 “cancer villages”, hotspots caused by pollution. Some claim that death rates from lung and liver cancer in this village have soared, but the true state of the soil around Bingmaying may never be revealed.Beijing said that the results of a national survey of ground pollution would remain unpublished. In the years since the assessment began in 2006, environmental degradation — especially when there are implied links to corruption — has become an explosive source of public unrest. But the status of China’s soil is a state secret.

Mercury Pollution in China

China now emits more mercury than the United States, India, and Europe combined. Mercury is a common heavy metal, ubiquitous in solid material on the earth’s surface. David Kirby wrote in Discover magazine, “China is full of the two biggest contributors to human-generated mercury, metal smelting and coal combustion. Smelting facilities heat metal ores to eliminate contaminants and extract the desired metal, such as zinc, lead, copper, or gold. Unfortunately, one of the consistent contaminants is mercury, and the heating process allows it to escape into the atmosphere in gaseous form. Similarly, coal contains trace amounts of mercury, which is set free during combustion at power plants. While it is trapped it is of little consequence to human health. But whenever metal is smelted or coal is burned, some mercury is released. It gets into the food chain and diffuses deep into the ocean. It eventually finds its way into fish, rice, vegetables, and fruit. [Source: David Kirby, Discover magazine, March 18, 2011]

“When inorganic mercury (whether from industry or nature) gets into wet soil or a waterway, sulfate-reducing bacteria begin incorporating it into an organic and far more absorbable compound called methylmercury. As microorganisms consume the methylmercury, the metal accumulates and migrates up the food chain; that is why the largest predator fish (sharks and swordfish, for example) typically have the highest concentrations. Nine-tenths of the mercury found in Americans’ blood is the methyl form, and most comes from fish, especially Pacific fish. About 40 percent of all mercury exposure in the United States comes from Pacific tuna that has been touched by pollution.” [Ibid]

In pregnant women, methylmercury can cross the placenta and negatively affect fetal brain development. Other pollutants that the fetus is exposed to can also cause toxic effects, “potentially leading to neurological, immunological, and other disorders,” says Harvard epidemiologist Philippe Grandjean, a leading authority on the risks associated with chemical exposure during early development. Prenatal exposure to mercury and other pollutants can lead to lower iq in children---even at today’s lower levels, achieved in the United States after lead paint and leaded gasoline were banned. [Ibid]

Studying Mercury Pollution in China

David Streets, a senior energy and environmental policy scientist at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, was on the forefront of the study of acid rain in the 1980s and carbon dioxide and global warming in the 1990s. In the mid 1990s he began focusing on emissions from China and has since become such a noted expert that he helped the Chinese government clean up the smoke-clogged skies over Beijing before the Olympics in 2008.

David Kirby wrote in Discover magazine, “In 2004, spurred by increased attention to mercury in the atmosphere, Streets decided to create an inventory of China’s mercury emissions. It was a formidable undertaking. Nobody had ever come up with a precise estimate, and the Chinese government was not exactly known for its transparency. Streets began by studying reports from China’s National Bureau of Statistics. China’s provinces provide the central government with detailed data on industrial production: how much coal they burn, how much zinc they produce, and so on. “China is very good at producing statistical data. It’s not always 100 percent reliable, but at least it’s a start,” he says. Those statistics help the Chinese government monitor the economy, but for Streets they also quantified China’s mercury-laden raw materials.” [Source: David Kirby, Discover magazine, March 18, 2011]

“The numbers from the statistics bureau told Streets the total amount of mercury that might be emitted, but he also needed to know how much actually made it into the air. To obtain that information, he turned to pollution detectives---a group of professional contacts he had met at conferences, along with graduate students who spent time in his lab. Most of the time, Chinese factories turned these “spies” away. “Factory owners had nothing to gain and a lot to lose,” Streets says. “They were nervous that the results would get leaked to the government.” Yet some of Streets’s moles got through by guaranteeing that the data would stay anonymous. Once inside, they took samples of raw materials---zinc ore in a smelting facility, for example---and installed chemical detectors in smokestacks. After a few days of data collection, they passed the information to Streets.” [Ibid]

The statistics Streets collected were hardly airtight. Factory foremen and provincial officials were not above providing inflated data to make themselves look more productive, and the managers who were willing to let his inspectors take measurements were often the very ones with nothing to hide. “There’s still a lot of uncertainty,” Streets concedes, “but we know more than we did before.” [Ibid]

In 2005 Streets and his team reported their first tally of human-generated mercury emissions in China, for the year 1999. The scientists estimated the amount at 590 tons (the United States emitted 117 tons). Almost half resulted from the smelting of metals---especially zinc, because its ores contain a high concentration of mercury. Coal-burning power plants accounted for another 38 percent of Chinese mercury emissions, and that percentage may be going up. As recently as 2007, China was building two new power plants a week, according to John Ashton, a climate official in the United Kingdom. Streets’s team published a subsequent inventory estimating that China’s mercury emissions had jumped to 767 tons in 2003. “Mercury emissions in China have grown at about 5 to 6 percent a year,” he says. “It’s pretty much undeniable.” [Ibid]

Lead Poisoning in China

China is the world’s leading producer and consumer of lead. There have been numerous cases of mass lead poisoning---including reports of severe lead poisoning in Hunan, Henan, Yunnan and Shanxii Provinces---along with instances in which local governments tried to cover them up. Sharon Lafraniere wrote in the New York Times in June 2011, “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...The cases underscore a pattern of government neglect seen in industry after industry as China strives for headlong growth with only embryonic safeguards.” [Source: Sharon Lafraniere, New York Times, June 15, 2011]

A report by Human Rights Watch released in June 2011 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, told the New York Times. “It really has affected a whole generation of kids.” [Ibid]

“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. Lead poisoning can damage the nervous, muscular and reproductive systems. 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, told the New York Times.

“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. 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.”

Sources of Lead Poisoning in China

Most lead poisoning is caused by pollution from battery factories and metal smelters. In recent years many new factories have opened that produce lead-acid batteries for electric bikes, motorcycles and cars. 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.” [Source: Sharon Lafraniere, New York Times, June 15, 2011]

Enforcement is spotty at best. Shen Yulin, the environmental protection director for Deqing County in Zhejiang Province, where several battery factories are located, said 65 inspectors were responsible for a region of nearly 400 square miles, with more than 2,000 factories.

Cases of Lead Poisoning in China

In March 2010 more reports of lead poisoning came from Hunan Province, this time from Guiyang County, where more than 200 people were diagnosed with excessive levels of lead in their blood. Guiyang is adjacent to another county, were 250 people were reported to have excessive lead in their blood in 2009. The lead in Guiyang is believed to have come from a polluting factory.

In villages around Jiyuan, Henan Province, headquarters of the Henan Yugang Gold and Lead Co., the largest lead producer in Asia, children gave chronic diarrhea and nosebleeds and look shockingly skinny; people in their 30s and 40s show signs of dementia; trees drop their leaves year round; the corn crop is stunted; and piglets are stillborn. The problems is severe enough that the government has acknowledged it to some degree and is helping to evacuate thousands of residents from the area. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times]

One Jiyang villager, who’s son had abnormally high lead levels in his blood and who lives about half a mile from a lead factory, told the Los Angeles Times, “When they let out the lead exhaust at night, there is this yellow smoke streaking the sky and a sick smell, kind of sweet,” Henan Yugang Gold and Lead, who factories mainly supply lead for car batteries, is not seen as a villain though. It provides relatively well-paying jobs in the area and has funded public buildings and sports teams. It suspended operations at a number of its factories when accusations about lead poisoning were made.

In September 2009, it was revealed that 121 children living near a battery plant in Fujian Province suffered from lead poisoning. Other clusters of leading poisoning have been found in other industrial areas. A hospital in Kunming found that 200 out of 1,000 children living near an industrial park there had elevated levels of lead in their blood according to the China Daily. In Shaanxi Province 615 out 731 children in two villages near the Dongling lead and Zinc smelter tested positive for lead poisoning. Parents there stormed the smelter.

In Hunan Province’s Wenping township 15 parents were detained for their involvement in a violent protest over pollution from a manganese processing factory that left 1,300 local children with lead poisoning. The parents were accused of having links to the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement.

The Jinglian Manganese Smelting Plant in the city of Wugan opened in May 2008. Villagers began suspecting something was amiss there when children became easily susceptible to fevers and colds. One village woman told Xinhua, “When I took my sons to the hospital the doctor asked if we lived near a heavy metal plant. We suspected the manganese smelter...was to blame.” Her two sons had 184 milligrams and 198 milligrams of lead, respectively, in each liter of blood. Normal ranges are between 0 and 100 milligrams. Executives at the plant and employees at the environmental agency that approved the plant were investigated for negligence.

Children Poisoned by Lead and Attempts to Cover It Up

In January 2011, it was revealed a lead factories in Huaining County in Anhui Province sickened more than 200 children with lead poisoning. Twenty children need hospitalization. Testing of 307 children found that 228 of them had high levels of lead in their blood. An environmental official in Huaining was suspended. Xinhua said the factories just across the street from people’s home despite regulations that required them to be at least 500 meters from residential areas.

Sharon Lafraniere wrote in the New York Times, “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 visitor there in 2011 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.” [Source: Sharon Lafraniere, New York Times, June 15, 2011]

“The children are not healthy. We don’t know how sick they are, and we can’t find out,” a 66-year-old villager told the New York Times. His 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. [Ibid]

Near Suji battery factory in Zhejiang Province test showed 53 children and 120 adults suffered from excessive lead level. Local officials told residents: “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.

Children Poisoned by Lead from a Battery Factory

Sharon Lafraniere wrote in the New York Times, “At Mengxi village in Zhejiang Province 233 adults and 99 children were 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 the Zhejiang Haijiu Battery Factory, a maker of lead-acid batteries for motorcycles and electric bikes. 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. [Source: Sharon Lafraniere, New York Times, June 15, 2011] “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.” Six-year-old Liu Kaifang, another victim, 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. [Ibid]

“The Haijiu Battery Factory, which exports to the United States, regulation of lead emissions was not so much lax as nonexistent,” Lafraniere wrote. “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.” [Ibid]

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.” [Ibid]

Anger Over Children Poisoned by Lead from a Battery Factory

Sharon Lafraniere wrote in the New York Times, in May 2011 when “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, a mob of more than 200 people gathered in this tiny eastern China village at the entrance to the Zhejiang Haijiu Battery Factory.... 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.” [Source: Sharon Lafraniere, New York Times, June 15, 2011]

Haijiu had breezed through six years of inspections, even though many workers say they were repeatedly hospitalized for lead poisoning. Only after the protest did authorities criticize the plant for a host of violations and order the plant closed and production lines razed. At a press conference after the actions were taken, 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.” [Ibid]

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. 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. The victims in the latest case were workers and their children in 25 family-run tinfoil processing workshops in Yangxunqiao town in Zhejiang province in eastern China. Lead is used in tinfoil processing and Xinhua said the workers and their families were constantly exposed to lead materials.

Government Response to Lead Poisoning in China

Sharon Lafraniere wrote in the New York Times , “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 in May 2011 at a number of battery factories, the government’s response remains faltering. [Source: Sharon Lafraniere, New York Times, June 15, 2011]

At a meeting in May 2011 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.

Conflict Between Villagers, Officials and Industry Over Pollution

Josh Chin and Brian Spegele wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “Zhu Hongqing, a 42-year-old rice farmer who lives down the road from Dapu in the village of Yanqiao, believes that his paddies are clean. They are located more than a mile from the chemical factory in Dapu and many miles from any mine. But consumer paranoia, amplified by a lack of information, means that the market for all Hunan rice is suffering, with prices of milled rice dipping as much as 14 percent since the cadmium scare began before recovering slightly, according to a manager at Jincheng Rice Mill in Hunan's Yiyang City. "I told my wife I have a very bad feeling about this," Mr. Zhu said one recent morning while surveying an early rice crop on the cusp of being harvested. "It's going to be impossible to sell it." [Source: by Josh Chin and Brian Spegele, Wall Street Journal, July 27, 2013 /=/]

The political sensitivity surrounding soil pollution is evident back in Dapu, where villagers were afraid to give their names for fear of reprisals from local officials. The farmer who is growing bad rice says that the village had long been a clean and prosperous place. Residents made a comfortable living selling rice, jujubes, oranges and melons. That changed in 2008, when construction began on an aluminum fluoride facility. The plant ran 24 hours a day, she says, sending smoke over local fields when the southern winds began to blow in late summer and polluting irrigation systems to the point that even the insects have fled. The fruit trees stopped bearing fruit, and whatever did grow, no one was willing to buy. /=/

“After villagers complained, the factory owners agreed to pay compensation as long as farmers continued to raise a crop. The Dapu farmer says that she used to earn as much as 10,000 yuan, or $1,630, each year from growing rice. Now she gets about 5,400 yuan, or $880, to grow rice shoots that don't produce any rice. /=/

“An official in charge of environmental protection at the factory, Hunan Nonferrous Fluoride Chemical, Co. Ltd., a subsidiary of state-run China Minmetals Group, said that the facility maintained strict environmental standards but that faulty equipment and electricity problems occasionally led to the accidental discharge of excess pollution. He said that none of the factory emissions were harmful to human health and added that the company paid pollution compensation as required by regulations. "Conflict between farmers and enterprises happens all the time because chemical factories can only be set up in the countryside," said the official, who only gave his surname, Li. "I totally understand the local people. I'm the son of a farmer myself." /=/

Combating Pollution in Agricultural Areas

Josh Chin and Brian Spegele wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “Experts say that the government is aware of the threat posed by rural pollution, noting a pledge by the environmental minister in March to make heavy-metal pollution a major focus. The Ministry of Land and Resources followed by announcing in June that it would conduct its own nationwide soil sampling to map pollution levels around the country, though it isn't clear if the findings will be made public. Later that month, China's cabinet, the State Council, discussed a draft amendment to the country's environmental law that would, among other things, stiffen punishments for polluters and require tighter regulation of fertilizers. But experts say that fear of transparency, a lumbering bureaucracy and worries over how China would cope if large areas of land were declared tainted raise questions about the government's ability to respond. [Source: by Josh Chin and Brian Spegele, Wall Street Journal, July 27, 2013 /=/]

Removing heavy metals from farmland is a complicated process that can take years—time lost for farming. That is a chilling prospect for a government tasked with supporting 20 percent of the world's population on less than 10 percent of the world's arable land. Any major reduction in food security would hurt the Communist Party, which has staked its reputation in part on its ability to keep the country's granaries full with minimal imports. /=/

The government's refusal to release its soil survey, meanwhile, has only added to fears that officials know more than they are willing to say. Launched to great fanfare in the state media in 2006, the survey was originally scheduled to be completed in 2010. In June last year, an environment ministry official told the Xinhua news service that more than 20 percent of soil samples in a trial program for monitoring pollution, involving 364 rural villages, had failed to meet national standards and that the results of the survey would be published "at the proper time." "There's a general feeling that government officials know the problem is really bad, and if they disclose it, then the public outrage will get ahead of the ability of the state to do something about it," says Alex Wang, an expert in Chinese environmental law at the UCLA School of Law. /=/

“Chinese officials have repeatedly said that they are serious about reining in pollution. A week after the cadmium news broke, the new Chinese president Xi Jinping said at a meeting of top leaders in Beijing that he planned to set an ecological "red line," warning that those who crossed it would be "held accountable for a lifetime," though he didn't provide specifics. /=/

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Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated December 2013

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