China Villages Battle Lead, Zinc Poisoning

A child with lead poisoning from the northwestern province of Gansu. Photo: AFP

HONG KONG—Residents of at least two regions in China’s poorer provinces of Gansu and Guangxi say they are being poisoned with lead and zinc waste being pumped into their water supply by local mining groups.

Jiang Wenjian, a resident of Guo’an village in Guangxi’s Teng county, told RFA’s Cantonese service that around 100,000 people were affected by the pollution of the river by nearby lead and zinc mines, which had a daily output of 20 tonnes.

“There are now three operations extracting lead and zinc from ore in this region, with a daily output of 20 tonnes. All of the waste flows into the nearby rivers.”

“The river in Dali is the main river for the whole region, with about 100,000 people relying on it for drinking water. It also flows into other areas, so perhaps even more than that have been affected,” Jiang said.

He said the local population of low-income rural families was already feeling the effects of pollution, which had affected 600 mu (100 acres, or 40 hectares) of farmland.

All of the drinking water available to the 3,000 people in our village is polluted, and the fish have all died.

“A lot of people are getting sick. The doctors say it’s down to the drinking water too. A couple of people had kidney disease and have died. About 30 percent of people have kidney stones,” he said.

Well closed

He said local officials had closed one of the wells in Guo’an village and wouldn’t let residents drink from it.

“All of the drinking water available to the 3,000 people in our village is polluted, and the fish have all died. There is no longer any vegetation growing upstream where the mines have their outlet,” he said.

An official at the Dali township government, which is in charge of Guo’an, confirmed they knew of pollution problems in Guo’an village.

According to our knowledge, 2,000 to 3,000 people have high levels of lead in their blood, with many of them showing levels of 300 micrograms. But the official media don't dare to report this.

“Currently government policy states that the polluter has to pay compensation,” the official said. “The villagers came to an agreement with the mine management in 2004, and the problem has now been resolved.”

But Guo’an village committee member Jiang Dachuan said that at the time of the agreement, the pollution still wasn’t that bad.

“Back then, if you used extra fertilizer, you could still get crops to grow. Now, nothing will grow at all in the fields. That’s why the farmers are demanding a revised compensation deal,” he said, adding that they had yet to receive a response.

Villagers protest

Villagers in the northwestern province of Gansu reported similar problems with lead, zinc, and iron smelters earlier this year.

Xinxi village, along with six neighboring villages with a population of around 5,000 people, have repeatedly complained, petitioned, and protested about lead poisoning from factories in their area, a major source of income for the county.

Every few days during the last three months, around 100 people stage a protest outside the gates of the village government offices, and are often detained by police for questioning.

Within a day of the first media reports of this problem appearing back in August, the authorities issued the order to close down the polluting factories.

But six or seven factories in the area still continue to pump out large quantities of black smoke as before, and to release untreated toxic sludge polluted with heavy metals, residents say.

In October the authorities issued new figures saying that just over 300 people had suffered from lead poisoning. But local residents said the real figure was probably somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 people.

Thick acrid smoke

A young woman of 19 from the county who grew up in the affected area said she hadn’t realized until now the great harm done to her health by lead poisoning.

A ticket seller, she has long been plagued by memory problems, and thought for a long time that it was just that her memory was poor, although she couldn’t understand why, because she hadn’t been like that since childhood.

Her home is just a five-minute walk from the Hui County Youse Smelting Plant.

“When we get up in the morning there is a thick fog of smoke all around us. The scariest thing is that there is a constant stream of poisonous smoke that gets into your eyes and nose when you go near the factory and chokes you so you can’t breathe. All our classmates cover our noses and cycle past as fast as we can.”

Official figures released in October showed that 368 people had lead blood-levels higher than the norm, and that 250 of those were children under the age of 14. Of those, 62 children had medium or severe levels of lead poisoning.

Li Jianzhong, a resident of Mouba village, one of those affected, said the government was only monitoring residents of seven villages with blood tests for lead.

Smelters' gate blocked

“There are between 4,000 and 5,000 people across seven villages. According to our knowledge, 2,000 to 3,000 people have high levels of lead in their blood, with many of them showing levels of 300 micrograms. But the official media don't dare to report this,” Li said.

Li said the government had forbidden the villagers from paying for blood tests to be carried out privately, probably because officials were afraid that the official figures would have to rise.

According to World Health Organization (WHO) research, people lose 2-3 IQ points for every 100 micrograms of lead per pint of blood. Low levels of lead poisoning lead to a vitamin D deficiency, whereas does of 200 to 300 micrograms affects hearing and the central nervous system. Above 500 micrograms per pint can result in anemia and a weakened immune system response to disease, brain damage, and even death.

Hong Kong Medical Association President Choi Kin said the effects of lead poisoning had a particularly strong impact on children who were still growing.

Back in Guangxi, frustrations reached their peak in August, when several hundred villagers got together and staged a sit-in, blocking the entrance to one of the mines.

Dali resident Jiang Dingguang said police had raided the township on Sept. 1, searching people’s homes and detaining several villagers.

Villagers hopeless

He himself was on their list but wasn’t at home at the time. Since then, the detained villagers had all been released, but local residents were afraid to continue any action.

“We were calling on the government to sort out the problem of our drinking water, the pollution problem. All we did was block the road for a few meters so they couldn’t get their trucks of ore out of the gate,” Jiang said.

“But the local authorities got on to the higher-ups and all the newspapers wrote about how we were disturbing the order of the local mining industry, that we robbed and looted in the mines.”

Seventy-year-old Dali resident Jiang Haoliang lost his 17 year-old grandson to kidney poisoning.

“We went to get him tested in [the provincial capital] Nanning in June. The doctor said he had a strange illness which he’d never seen before. Then when he died they said it was kidney poisoning.”

He said the family hadn’t pursued the matter. “We farmers don’t have any money. There are many bigger cases filed against the government which have gotten nowhere. What good would it do?” he said.

“The government nowadays is 10 times worse than the Kuomintang ever was. They don’t care whether ordinary people live or die.”

Hu Zongyi, a researcher at the National Institute of Health in the United States, said the waste water from lead and zinc extraction would affect the pH balance of the water, and that this effect would be removed in city water supplies where they had filtration systems.

But remote farming communities in the mountains had no such facilities, he said. So disorders of the blood and internal organs would be very likely.

An official at the environmental department in the nearby city of Wuzhou declined to give interviews to overseas media without the approval of the propaganda department.

Calls to the propaganda department during office hours went unanswered.

An official at the environmental testing office in Wuzhou said that environmental complaints regarding Dali township would be dealt with by county-level officials.

Original reporting in Cantonese by Lee Ching-man, Ngai Sze-kwan, and Lam Lok-tung. RFA Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.


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