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Lead pollution and industrial opportunism in China

By Tee L. Guidotti

Mengxi Village, in Zhejiang province, in eastern coastal China, is an obscure rural hamlet not far geographically but far removed socially from the beauty, history, and glory of Hangzhou, the capital. Now it is the unlikely center of a an environmental health awakening in which citizens took direct action by storming the gates of a lead battery recycling plant that has caused lead poisoning among both children and adults in the village.  Sharon Lafranierre reported the story on 15 June 2011 in the New York Times.

What was unusual about the incident was not that the community was heavily polluted and that the health of children in the village has been harmed but that local residents, 200 of them, took violent action, smashing property in the plant, and seem not to have been punished for it. The incident opens a window on the rapid change in attitudes in China toward industrialization, pollution, and authority.

Like many rural settlements, Mengxi responded to the opening of the Chinese economy by creating small-scale business to make money and to raise local residents out of poverty. Compared to earlier local “township enterprises,” this plant came late to Mengxi; it was only opened in 2005. But it caught a wave of increased business demand and now employs a reported 1000 workers, making it an important economic support for rural Deqing County. Historically, these township enterprises have been a peculiar and often corrupt blend of local government and local entrepreneurship. They have been grossly undercapitalized and essentially unregulated: the Mengxi battery plant had apparently been knowingly operating for at least six years in violation of environmental emissions standards. The central Government has been cracking down in recent years and making examples in some egregious cases but local authorities are stronger in rural areas.

Local officials, having a deep and usually personal stake in these enterprises, often try harder to protect them than to protect the local people for whom they are responsible. Mengxi illustrates the problem of local officials refusing to act, denying that the problem exists, and suppressing efforts to find out by journalists or by public health experts. Part of this may be greed but once the damage is done fear probably takes over as the main motivation for concealing the truth. Already, eight company officials have been arrested and all must be very aware of the two senior executive and the dairy boss who were executed in China this year for allowing contamination of milk.

Battery plants on this small scale are particularly hazardous and in the absence of effective regulation can be very dangerous to local residents, especially children, who are more vulnerable than adults to lead poisoning. Lead exposure in this situation may occur from airborne dust containing lead, contact with dirt contaminated from larger particles of lead that drop out of the air from fumes, food grown in contaminated soil, dust brought home on the clothes of adults who work in the plants, and even in homes, where some families actually smelt small quantities of lead as a cottage industry. Lead exerts its major toxic effects on the nervous system. In children, it can cause a spectrum of disorders ranging from severe lead poisoning and brain damage (“toxic encephalopathy”) at levels seen in some children in the village to more subtle toxicity that causes a reduction in potential intelligence (difficult to measure in an individual child but demonstrable in a population) and loss of impulse control, which can be seen at levels that are now common throughout China and used to be common in the United States decades ago.

The revelation should not have come as a surprise. In 2007, a major article from the School of Public Health at Fudan University, in Shanghai, appeared in Archives of Environmental and Occupational Health summarizing children’s environmental health issues in China. Lead toxicity was at the top of the article and Zhejiang province was identified as a region of particular risk. (Disclosure: The author is both Editor of that journal and a coauthor on that paper.) In rural areas, there is little information available but it is well known that local, small-scale industry, particularly lead battery recycling, has created hot spots of exposure where the situation is grave and levels reach those of classical lead poisoning of a type rarely seen in North America or Europe for a century.

Urban areas of China have a more widespread problem but it is no less severe. Alarmingly, some 30% of urban children up to the age of 5 have been identified as having blood lead levels above the “level of concern,” a rough threshold used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to indicate high risk for toxicity. Unlike developed countries that developed earlier, where lead-free gasoline led to a sharp decrease in blood lead levels in children, in China the removal of lead from gasoline in 2000 was not followed by any appreciable reduction in blood lead levels in urban children. The reason is that leaded gasoline played less of a role in China than exposure from other sources. Tracking down these sources, one by one, and controlling them individually is a much greater public health problem than eliminating a single predominant source, such as lead paint in the United States, which even now has not solved this problem in many older cities.

Tee L. Guidotti, MD, MPH, DABT is a consultant in occupational and environmental health and sustainability with Medical Advisory Services, based in Rockville, Maryland. He was a professor of environmental and occupational health and medicine for 30 years at universities in the United States and Canada. Dr. Guidotti is editor of Global Occupational Health.

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