China’s Lead Curse

Sun Guotai, right, has almost two times China’s national limit of acceptable lead levels in his blood. His parents worked in the Haijiu Battery Factory, just 200 meters away from the 100 yuan-a-month rented room they live in. Photo by Sim Chi Yin

Sun Guotai, right, has almost two times China’s national limit of acceptable lead levels in his blood. His parents worked in the Haijiu Battery Factory, just 200 meters away from the 100 yuan-a-month rented room they live in. Photo by Sim Chi Yin

China’s rapid ascent to the world’s second-biggest economy has been at enormous human cost. Industries that western countries no longer want have found a ready home in the world’s most populous country, which until recently has been eager for any economic activity, no matter how dirty it may be. Lead is one of those dirty industries.

China is the world’s leading lead producer and its tens of thousands of workers in this industry, and their families, are barely protected from harm. Smelters belch out toxic smoke into worker housing or nearby villages, while battery factories poison their workers. The children of these workers are even more at risk, since children absorb lead more easily than adults, and are poisoned by the fine dust their parents bring home on their clothes and shoes.

In the past two and a half years, thousands of workers, villagers and children in at least nine of China’s 31 province-level regions have been found to be suffering from toxic levels of lead exposure, the New York Times reported in June of 2011.

One of the most recent and largest cases was in Mengxi village, in eastern China’s Zhejiang Province, where 233 adults and 99 children were found to have lead concentrations in their blood up to seven times the level classified as safe by the Chinese government. International health experts say no level of lead concetration in blood has been found to be safe for children. High levels of lead poisoning can cause damage to the brain, kidney, liver, nerves and stomach and even death. In Mengxi village, where the contaminating Haijiu Battery Factory has been ordered to stop work, most of the victims were migrant workers and their families. Many have received perfunctory treatment and taken compensation from the factory and left the area, making it unlikely that they will get more help or treatment. Some of the children have contamination levels four times higher than the Chinese government’s limit.

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