Thursday, June 16, 2011

China: Hundreds of thousands of children poisoned and suffering permanent mental and physical disabilities

Photo Credit:

By Taro Ichikawa

Courtesy IDN-InDepth NewsReport

TOKYO (IDN) - Hundreds of thousands of children living in poor, polluted villages next to, and surrounded by, lead smelters and battery factories in China, where their parents work, have been found poisoned and suffering permanent mental and physical disabilities.

To make matters worse, they are being denied medical treatment in gross violation of Chinese law. Family members and journalists seeking information about the problem are intimidated and harassed, says a new report.

"Chinese government officials in provinces with high rates of industrial pollution are restricting access to lead testing, withholding and falsifying test results, and denying children treatment," Human Rights Watch (HRW) alleges in a 75-page report titled 'My Children Have Been Poisoned': A Public Health Crisis in Four Chinese Provinces, released on June 15, 2011.

Lead is highly toxic and can interrupt the body's neurological, biological, and cognitive functions. The ingestion of high levels of lead can cause brain, liver, kidney, nerve, and stomach damage as well as anemia, comas, convulsions, and even death, according to medical experts.

Children are particularly susceptible, and high levels of lead exposure can cause permanent intellectual and developmental disabilities, including reading and learning disabilities, behavioural problems, hearing loss, attention problems, and disruption in the development of visual and motor functioning.

HRW draws on research in heavily lead-contaminated villages in Henan, Yunnan, Shaanxi, and Hunan provinces. It documents how, in spite of increasing regulation and sporadic enforcement targeting polluting factories, local authorities are ignoring the urgent and long-term health consequences of a generation of children continuously exposed to life-threatening levels of lead.

"Children with dangerously high levels of lead in their blood are being refused treatment and returned home to contaminated houses in polluted villages," said Joe Amon, health and human rights director at Human Rights Watch. "Parents, journalists, and community activists who dare to speak out about lead are detained, harassed, and ultimately silenced," he added.

The report points out that over the past decade, numerous mass lead poisoning incidents have been reported across the country. In response, Environmental Protection Ministry officials have become more outspoken, directing local officials to increase supervision of factories and enforce existing environmental regulations. The ministry has also said that it will pursue criminal penalties for businesses and local officials who violate environmental restrictions.

"However, these promises fall short of addressing the health consequences of lead poisoning and fulfilling the right to health for children exposed to lead, HRW says, urging authorities to make sure that the immediate and long-term health care needs of people in contaminated villages are taken care of, and that the polluted areas are cleaned up.

"It's not enough to penalize factory owners and officials after a village is severely contaminated," Amon said. "The government needs to provide treatment and to make sure that children aren't immediately re-exposed to toxic levels of lead."


The report documents how local authorities in contaminated areas have imposed arbitrary limits on access to blood lead testing, for example by permitting only people living within a small radius of a factory to be tested.

"When tests are conducted, results have often been contradictory or have been withheld from victims and their families. And children with elevated blood lead levels who require treatment according to national guidelines have been denied care or told simply to eat certain foods, including apples, garlic, milk, and eggs," alleges the report.

The HRW report – based on interviews in Henan, Hunan, Shaanxi, and Yunnan provinces, and research in Beijing and Shanghai between late 2009 and early 2010 – details the experiences of dozens of parents whose children are suffering the acute and chronic effects of lead poisoning.

One mother from Yunnan province said: "The doctor told us all the children in this village have lead poisoning. Then they told us a few months later that all the children are healthy. They wouldn't let us see the results from the tests though."

A grandmother in Shaanxi province is quoted in the report describing her attempts to get treatment for her grandson. She said: "The government gave us some garlic and told us to give our grandson extra garlic. We asked about medicine, something to make him better. They said they wouldn't give us any because medicine for lead poisoning doesn't work."

In recent years, the Chinese government has promoted a number of environmental regulations aimed at curbing widespread industrial pollution and protecting the environment and public health.


However, enforcement has been uneven, and little has been done to reduce lead levels in villages that are already heavily contaminated. The failure to address the rights of the people in these villages to health care and a healthy environment places China at odds with its obligations under both the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, cautions HRW.

In all fairness, the report points out that in China – which today has the world's largest population and second largest economy – gross domestic product has increased ten-fold in the last 15 years. That rise in gross domestic product (GDP) growth has helped lift 200 million people out of absolute poverty since 1978.

"But this rapid economic development has also exacted a steep environmental price; widespread industrial pollution that has contaminated water, soil, and air and put the health of millions of people – likely even hundreds of millions – at risk. Currently, 20 of the world’s 30 most polluted cities are in China," states the report.

"The Chinese government has begun to realize that the environmental cost of massive toxic pollution is unacceptable," Amon said. "Unfortunately, it has yet to address the health consequences for the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of children who face the dire consequences of the government's neglect."

The Chinese government's ill regard for human rights means it has been able to pursue a model of economic development that is not accountable to its citizens, including poor people who are often particularly susceptible to the most damaging health effects of environmental hazards, says the report.

"But industrial pollution, and the lack of accountability that accompanies it, extends far beyond health issues: it impacts the full realization of human rights in China, including people’s right to life, health, an adequate standard of living, as well as to information, participation, and access to justice," it adds.


Human Rights Watch has identified a number of recommendations for responding to the lead poisoning crisis.

It urges the World Health Organization (WHO) to provide technical expertise to the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention to ensure accuracy of blood lead level testing, and work with the Ministry of Health to develop a comprehensive treatment plan for children and adults with elevated blood lead levels.

Foreign companies sourcing materials from China, HRW says, should ensure that materials originate from a factory with an environmental impact assessment and that is legally allowed to be operating through the following mechanisms:

-Execution of a social and environmental review by a credible third party of source industrial facility operations.

- Conduct site visits of source industrial facilities to ensure compliance with safeguards aimed to mitigate social and environmental risks.

- Ensure that allegations of hazardous conditions which local populations are exposed to are investigated and resolved.

HRW is asking governments and international organizations funding or concerned about health, environment and human rights issues in China, including the U.S. government and European Union to voice concern to the Chinese government about the severity and persistence of industrial pollution in China.

They should also strongly condemn the arrests and detention of citizens exercising their legal rights by protesting industrial pollution and lead poisoning in China, the HRW report says.