Lead pollution is a major problem in China. In 2009 a serious scandal revealed that lead smelting plants in Shaanxi and Henan provinces had poisoned some hundreds of children from surrounding villages (850 reported cases near the Dongling Lead and Zinc Smelting Company in Changqing township alone). Four years on and progress has been slow.

Most of China’s lead pollution comes from metal refineries, but it has also been linked to the poorly regulated e-waste recycling industry. Lead poisoning can cause nerve and kidney damage as well as mental and cognitive problems in children, who are especially vulnerable. Children often come into contact with lead by playing in soil that has been contaminated by nearby processing plants.

A factory on the Yangtze with what looks to be terraced rice farms behind. Pic: eutrophication&hypoxia (Flickr CC)

A joint study by the National Resources Defense Council, several Chinese Universities and regional government departments in Yunnan province measured lead levels in the soil of school grounds located downwind from a smelting plant and mine in the northeast of the province. Researchers found lead at 2 to 7 times that of nationally acceptable levels.

From China Dialogue:

The failings in preventing and dealing with lead pollution were clear: emission controls were inadequate or not implemented; there was no adequate buffer zone between the smelter plant and residential areas; monitoring was limited and patchy; and emissions were effectively going unmonitored. Serious soil pollution was going untreated.

Poisoning of workers and children as well as a lack of compensation for the victims of lead pollution has lead to some serious backlashes. In 2011 a mob invaded a battery factory in eastern China, smashing up their offices after discovering the firm had ignored safety standards, resulting in the poisoning of villagers. Tests revealed that 233 adults and 99 children had lead concentrations in their blood of up to seven times that of accepted safety levels. Unfortunately this case is far from unique.

Recently, dangerous lead has been found in rice exported from Asia. The highest levels (up to 60 times US safety standards for children) were found in rice from China and Taiwan, with dangerous levels also found in rice originating in India, Bhutan and Thailand. Significant amounts of lead were not only found in Asian rice, but also in exports from Italy and the Czech Republic.

From the Daily Mail:

Infants and children consuming the rice would be exposed to lead levels 30 to 60 times higher than the tolerable safety limits set by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), said the study authors.

For Asian children, who consume more rice, exposures could be up to 120 times higher.

For adults, daily exposure levels were 20 to 40 times higher than the FDA guidelines.

Rice exports from other countries, including Pakistan and Brazil, have yet to be analyzed.

A factory in Chonqing, pic: Leo Fung (Flickr CC)