Lead poisoning in China is nothing new. Neither are well-publicized scandals involving mass poisonings due to industrial production at facilities like metal smelters, battery factories and chemical plants. Even Chinese state media has reported stories that help form a greater narrative that paints a picture of an ongoing epidemic involving the poisoning of thousands of children over the last five years.

The latest story of a chemical plant closure in central Hunan province and the absurd claims of a local politician show that corruption, poor human health and lax regulations all go hand in hand within the world’s most populous country. Three hundred children were found to have high levels of lead in their blood — the closer they live to the factory, the more lead in their blood. According to Xinhua, China’s official state press agency, some children had more than three times the national standard for lead levels. The South China Morning Post puts the number as high as five times national safety limits. 

From China Daily:

The chemical plant, Meilun Chemical Materials Limited Co, which is suspected of discharging untreated water and waste, has been shut down, including the turning off of electricity and disassembling of manufacturing equipment, according to a news release on Sunday from the Hengdong county government. Additionally, the county’s public security bureau has launched an investigation of the plant, according to the news release.

Smelting plants are often sources of lead poisoning in China. Pic: Caitriana Nicholson (Flickr CC)

Adding insult to injury, a local politician suggested that the unusually high blood lead levels could be the result of children chewing on pencils. The official has been criticised not only for being insensitive and obviously desperate to avoid a scandal, but the township leader is also not very resourceful when it comes to lying, as pencils are made with graphite and not lead, despite common misconceptions. Even if pencils were made with lead, it would take a sudden epidemic of pencil biting to poison 300 kids at once.

With industrial activity poisoning thousands of children in Hunan and rural areas of other provinces in the past few years, it is clear that unregulated pollution is dangerous and endemic in China. If the chemical plant is producing paint as the South China Morning Post states, this is another concern. Lead paint was banned in the United States for most uses back in 1977 and has been regulated in many countries due to its toxicity.

Lead poisoning can cause brain and kidney damage, learning disabilities, behavioral problems and seizures. Besides dumping contaminants directly into the land and water, lead often enters the atmosphere through the chimneys of smelters.

Oftentimes it is not the regulations that are crucial factors, but rather that their enforcement and compliance are lacking, especially in rural areas. Factories and local governments are often in cahoots, resulting in rampant pollution and serious health concerns for local residents.

China is becoming known for its severe pollution levels. Pic: Jonathan Kos-Read (Flickr CC)