How Will China Respond to its Lead Poisoning Epidemic?

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In recent years protests over environmental hazards, including lead poisoning from poorly regulated factories, have erupted across China. While those demonstrations have grabbed attention here, it’s been difficult to measure the extent of the problem. Now a report from Human Rights Watch provides a fuller degree of insight into the scope of lead poisoning in China, and how local officials have tried to keep victims, their families and the public at large in the dark about the threat to human health.

The report, titled “‘My Children Have Been Poisoned’—A Public Health Crisis in Four Chinese Provinces,” estimates that hundreds of thousands of Chinese children suffer from permanent affects of lead poisoning, which include diminished intellectual capacity and motor functions, anemia, brain, liver, kidney, nerve and stomach damage. The sources of lead include paint, toys, water and food, but the report, which looks at Shaanxi, Henan, Hunan and Yunnan provinces, focuses on insufficiently controlled factories as a source of lead poisoning for whole communities. Here residents have fallen victim to the blind pursuit of development. “Underpinning China’s lead poisoning epidemic is a tension between the government’s goals for economic growth and its efforts to curb environmental degradation,” the report says.

It goes on to list a host of ways that officials have sought to keep the extent of the problem a secret:

[L]ocal governments have imposed arbitrary limits on access to blood lead testing; refused appropriate treatment to children and adults with critically high lead levels; withheld and failed to explain test results showing unaccountable improvements in lead levels; and denied the scope and severity of lead poisoning.

Parents said that government officials told them that only children living within one kilometer of a factory smokestack were at risk and that milk was adequate treatment for lead poisoning. Parents reported that local police threatened individuals seeking treatment and information, and those trying to protest against polluting factories have been arrested. Journalists told us they have been intimidated and threatened when trying to report on lead poisoning.

That description is worryingly similar to the way the Chinese government has initially handled other recent health crises, including AIDS, the SARS outbreak in 2003 or the toxic milk scandal of 2008. The first instinct is to deny, obfuscate and block any wider discussion of the problems. This tendency towards official secrecy is not, of course, a uniquely Chinese phenomenon. But state controls on the press, the courts and nongovernmental organizations make it harder for stories like this to get out in China. And when these tragedies remain obscured, they fester. Once the problems are exposed, the Beijing government can act swiftly to reduce harm, as it did after the extent of the SARS crisis was revealed, or after the government acknowledged the extent to which AIDS was spreading through the country.

At what stage is China’s lead crisis? Mass poisonings are now covered with regularity in the state press, and Premier Wen Jiabao criticized Environmental Minister Zhou Shengxian after one recent case, the New York Times reported today. Those are all positive signs. But it’s impossible to know the extent of China’s lead poisoning crisis without addressing the extent to which it’s been covered up.