Lead Pollution A Hidden Affliction behind Booming Economy
   2011-07-28 17:13:55    Xinhua      Web Editor: Zhangxu

A grandmother watches her chubby, one-year-old grandson playing on the sofa. She should have a look of joy on her face but instead it conveys a combination of bitterness and anxiety -- days ago, the family learned the boy has lead poisoning.

The disheartening diagnosis informed the family that 348 micrograms of lead are present for every liter of blood in the baby boy, which is two and a half times more than the highest lead level for a healthy man.

"The local government delivered us some medicine and asked the boy to be immediately sent away, but we have no place to go," said Lu Shenqun, the grandmother.

Lu's family lives in the village of Jiankou near Lingbao, a city in central Henan Province that is famous for its lead industry. Chimneys of two large smelters loom over Jiankou and its neighboring villages.

For years, the choking smoke has prompted a majority of the villagers to complain, and revelations of children being afflicted with unknown diseases continued to irritate local residents, driving them onto city streets to demand answers.

In July, a government-sponsored test found 178 of the village's 431 children aged 14 or below to be suffering from elevated blood lead levels, and among them 27 were categorized as lead poisoned.

Health experts said an increased level of lead in the body can damage the circulatory, nervous, and reproductive systems and is particularly toxic to children.

Worse yet, the heavy metal becomes deposited in the soil, making the polluted area unable to grow crops and unfavorable for residence for a long period of time.

In a scramble to deal with the crisis, local officials said they had asked parents to temporarily move their children out of the polluted area, while in the long term, the relocation of the village might be inevitable.

Xinling and Xinhua, the two smelters suspected to have caused the pollution in Jiankou Village, had also been ordered to suspend production.

Yet the two factories said their pollution levels and locations had been approved by the local bureau for environmental protection.

"The factory had spent a lot to introduce clean technology and had only started trial production for three months," said Chen Zhihua, owner of Xinhua Lead Company. "Suspension of operation at this moment has caused us huge losses."

POLICY BLANK

Experts and officials involved in Lingbao's pollution scandal have pointed to China's lax environmental standards on its lead industry.

For one thing, the country did not pass a regulation on the location of lead smelters until 2007, when China required all new smelters to be placed one kilometer away from residential areas.

This has been blamed for several pollution cases in recent years. In 2009, three veteran lead enterprises, which were hailed by the environmental authority in the city of Jiyuan in Henan Province for using cleaner facilities, were found to have poisoned more than 1,000 children within the one-kilometer range.

Similar problems have troubled Xinling and Xinhua, which were built in 2005 and 2006 and located 500 meters from Jiankou Village.

As the 2007 regulation said nothing about those built in the past, the local government turned a blind eye to the shortened safety distance by arguing that the two factories had decent records of lead discharge.

Experts said the lead pollution scandal has once again highlighted the need for China to step up research and legislation efforts on environmental protection in order to prevent a flawed policy from snowballing into a social and economic avalanche.

Li Ren, an environmental researcher at the Scivic Engineering Corporation, said compared to the fast expansion of heavy metal production, China's policy making has been slow.

"Heavy metals can accumulate in the soil, so the damage often occurs later in time, and therefore a slow response can cause big problems," Li said.

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