Lead-Poisoned Children 'Normal'

Officials in eastern China say new tests show children admitted for lead contamination are now fit to return home.

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lead-test-305.jpg Parents bring their children for blood tests checking for high lead content in central China’s Hunan province, Aug. 22, 2009.

A group of 23 children from the eastern Chinese province of Anhui who were taken to hospital with high levels of lead in their blood have now tested within the normal range, officials said.

In an abrupt turnaround from previous official media reports, officials are now denying that the children are suffering from lead poisoning at all.

An employee surnamed Li who answered the phone at government offices in Gaohe township, where the children live, said the government had made arrangements for more than 300 local children to attend the provincial children's hospital for tests and treatment following recent concerns over lead levels in their blood tests.

He said 23 of the children were still in hospital.

"The results are being verified by health department officials from the provincial government," Li said.

"None of them was over the limit for lead in their blood. They are all of them fine. For now, they are still in the hospital. They will soon be brought back here."

He said environmental protection agency officials and health officials from the Huaining county government had already gone to the area to take soil samples to test for any link to pollution. "We haven't had the results yet," he said.

Calls to the county environmental protection agency, the health department and the Anqing Borui battery factory, which was blamed in previous official media reports for the pollution, went unanswered during office hours on Thursday.

Residents worried

Local residents said the concerns of parents in the area were well-known to all who lived there.

"A lot of the kids from around here have gone to the provincial level children's hospital for tests and treatment," said a resident of a neighboring village surnamed Zhang.

"This is definitely quite a serious situation."

A second resident said local people blamed the nearby Borui battery factory.

"The villagers all say it's because the water supply has been polluted by the nearby battery factory," she said.

"They say its pollution that comes from dust. We aren't experts, just ordinary people. So we really don't know the reason."

Official media reports on Thursday said production at the factory had been halted pending an investigation.

The subsequent claim of "normal" blood test results runs counter to statements made by county-level officials on Thursday.

Then, Huaning county officials blamed the Borui Battery Co for putting local children's health at risk by producing excessive lead emissions at factories just a few yards from a densely populated area of Gaohe township.

"In a subsequent government-sponsored checkup on 280 children, more than 200 were diagnosed with high blood lead levels," Xinhua news agency reported.

It said the children ranged in age from nine months to 16 years old, and were suffering from "moderate to severe lead poisoning" with more than 250 micrograms of lead per liter of blood.

Brain development can be affected in children who have as little as 100 micrograms of lead per liter of blood.

'False positive' results

The initial tests were carried out by the Anhui Provincial Children's Hospital, but officials said they were in fact "false positive results."

An official who answered the phone at the Anqing municipal government offices said the results were all in the normal range.

"All the ones with [alleged] high levels of lead were checked again and all found to be normal," he said.

"[They found that] 23 of the children had tested falsely for excess lead in the blood. Now they have all been found to be normal following testing."

The hospital has reserved the seventh floor of its in-patient department for the lead poisoned children, official media and employees said.

Chinese environmental regulations dictate that no battery plant should be built within a radius of 500 meters from residential communities.

But local residents said the Borui plant was much closer than that.

"These two battery factories are very close, only about 100 meters away," said one Gaohe resident surnamed Huang.

Excessive amounts of lead in the blood can damage the digestive, nervous, and reproductive systems and cause stomach aches, anemia and convulsions.

A healthcare worker at the provincial children's hospital said she didn't know why the remaining 23 children had not yet been discharged.

"I don't know why. I am just on duty here," she said. "They have all been accommodated upstairs. I can't find the telephone number for up there, because the ward has been renovated."

Results questioned

Chinese netizens reacted with skepticism at the government's latest announcement.

"Really?" wrote top blogger Zan Aizong via the microblogging service Twitter. "How could it return to normal after such a short time?"

"That was quick!" commented another user.

U.S.-based environmental author Zheng Yi said the "normal" results were unlikely to be authentic.

"According to our past experience in following similar cases, we can say that it is highly likely that the government is lying," Zheng said.

"Environmental protection is one of the biggest concerns that the government has in maintaining stability. So ... they are bound to deny or cover it up."

Zheng said local officials were likely to have been aware that there might be such a problem for some time.

"Lying is second nature to corrupt government officials at every level," he said. "The shameful poisoning of these children with lead didn't happen overnight."

China's ministry of environmental protection had sent an investigation team to Anhui, according to official media.

Battery makers and lead and zinc smelting plants have been blamed for a wave of lead poisoning cases in many parts of China in recent years.

Activists say that China has an exemplary set of environmental protection legislation, but that environmental officials lack the power to impose it on powerful vested interests at local level.

Reported by He Ping for RFA's Mandarin service and by Fung Yat-yiu for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.


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