Unrest over health hazards in China

Ananth Krishnan

BEIJING: Hundreds of villagers in China’s Shaanxi province stormed a lead smelting plant on Monday after it emerged that more than 600 children in two villages had taken ill with lead poisoning.

Monday’s incident is the latest in a number of recent cases of public unrest caused by environmental pollution by factories in China’s provinces. While the government has in recent years begun to strengthen its environmental pollution laws, violations are still widespread at the provincial level.

Officials said on Monday the Dongling Lead and Zinc Smelting Group in central China’s Shaanxi province was responsible for poisoning at least 615 children in two villages near the township of Changqing located near its plant. Officials found that lead content in the water and soil in surrounding areas was dangerously high.

Out of the 615 children who had taken ill with lead poisoning, 166 were in a serious condition and admitted to local hospitals. Officials said in some cases the lead content found in their blood was more than four times safe levels. “The medical test by doctors showed that for 20 out of 30 children the lead in blood was excessive, and 10 had more than 200 mg of lead per litre of blood,” Zhang Yongxiang, a local villager, told the State-run China Daily newspaper. The normal lead content in blood is between 0 and 100 mg per litre. “One girl was taken to a hospital because her lead content was 306 mg,” he said.

While environmental laws have been strengthened at the central level, enforcement at the local level remains weak, and many say influential companies, which often enjoy close relationships with local governments, escape strict enforcement. It emerged on Monday that Dongling had even passed emission standards tests and inspections conducted by local authorities.

Another high-profile case last year saw more than 3 lakh children fall ill after consuming milk powder tainted with the industrial chemical melamine. Later, investigations found that the Sanlu company, China’s largest dairy producer, had for months covered up tests which had found its milk products to be unsafe. It also emerged that Sanlu had close ties with the provincial government in Hebei where the company was based.

Next month, the first ever environmental protection lawsuit filed against a government body in China on behalf of residents will be heard in Guizhou province. Usually, affected residents receive little compensation given the weakness in enforcement of environmental laws. But a local municipal court last month, for the first time, accepted a public interest petition filed against the government for a construction project that polluted two water bodies.

“No matter what the conclusion is, we hope it will serve as a warning to government departments that they should fulfil their duty to protect the environment,” Liu Haiying, a judge at the Qingzhen municipal court in Guizhou told China Daily. “They need to gradually realise they are not only under the supervision of the Communist Party and other administrative departments, but also under the watch of citizens.”

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