Guest post by chinadialogue intern Shi Yuhan.
In late December, 228 out of 307 children living in Gaohe Township in Huaning county of Anhui province were found to have an excessive concentration of lead in their blood. As a result, 23 of them were hospitalised. This is not the first lead-poisoning incident to have hit Huaining county. Last year, 43 factory workers in Yueshan, a township under the county’s administration, suffered the same problem.
In China, the safe threshold for blood-lead levels in children is considered to be 100 micrograms (per litre of blood). However, the 23 children admitted to Jingshengli Children’s Hospital suffered from moderate to severe lead poisoning, with levels above 250 micrograms of lead per litre of blood. The highest level recorded was 392 micrograms.
All the children affected by lead poisoning came from Xinshan community, located less than 100 metres from the Borui Battery Company. According to the “Health Protection Zone Standards for Industrial Enterprises”, highly polluting battery plants should not be built within a radius of 500 metres from residential communities, because of their lead-dust emissions. Moreover, the Borui Battery Company had not been subject to the inspections required by the “three-simultaneity” policy (which requires that a facility and its required pollution control measures are designed, constructed and placed into operation at the same time) and had thus been operating illegally. Without any proper environmental-impact assessment, the set up of the factory could have only been achieved with the help of the local environmental protection bureau.
On January 13, the Anqing government made the results of its investigation public and named the Huaining county chief as one of 10 government officials responsible for the lead poisoning.
During 2010, heavy-metal poisoning incidents occurred frequently in China: in July, children with excessive levels of lead in their blood were found both in Heqing county, Yunnan province, and in the city of Xinyi, in Jiangsu province. In November, another mass lead-poisoning incident occurred in Tai’an county, Shandong province.
According to Nanfang Daily, Huaining’s lead poisoning incident is similar to the one that occurred in 2009 in Fengxiang, a county in Shaanxi province. In both instances, the local environmental protection bureaus stated that the factories’ rectification and reform had successfully been accomplished in accordance with the national standards. There are two main reasons behind this statement: firstly, Huaining’s lead-poisoning incident had been brought to public attention, and local officials just wanted the blame to be confined to culprits within the polluting factories. Secondly, environmental-protection departments and polluting factories go hand in hand, as their interests are strictly tied.
According to a poll launched on the website of the People’s Daily, the largest proportion of Chinese voters (35.9%) believe “local protectionism” is the principal cause of the frequent cases of heavy-metal pollution across the country, while 23.7% point to “lack of focus on pollution problems” and “insufficient government supervision” as the origin of the country’s pollution crises.