Officials Block Parents' Questions

Chinese authorities duck questions on lead-poisoned children.
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A woman from Shanghai's Pudong district holds her daughter who she says is suffering from lead poisoning.
A woman from Shanghai's Pudong district holds her daughter who she says is suffering from lead poisoning.
Photo appears courtesy of concerned parents

Parents in the Shanghai district of Pudong who are campaigning for an investigation into high lead levels in their children's blood tests say they are being stonewalled by local officials.

Last month, the Shanghai authorities ordered a number of factories, particularly those making batteries, to close after more than 700 children were found with higher-than-normal levels of lead in their blood, official media reported.

But officials have maintained that the closures are due to lead quotas, rather than any direct link to the poisoning of children, many of whom live in and around Kangqiao township in Pudong.

Parents now say officials are stonewalling their attempts to get clearer answers about which companies are responsible, and have refused to meet with them in spite of repeated promises to do so.

A Kangqiao parent surnamed Lu said that dozens of parents had planned to hire a conference room to hold a meeting with officials, but that the venue had canceled their booking at the last minute.

"I got a call from the manager of the venue saying something about a specially important event," Lu said. "They said they would be unable to organize our meeting for us for the time being."

"I made some inquiries and found out that some local officials were on the phone with our lawyers to find out about the meeting ... When they found out, they blocked it."

Growing anger

Lu said parents are becoming increasingly angry at government inaction on the lead poisoning case.

"I have spoken to [police and township officials] three times," he said. "The first time, they said I was spreading rumors. The second time, they said I was inciting people to illegal assembly."

"They harass our entire family from dawn to dusk," he said. "There is a problem, but they won't do anything to fix it."

A second parent surnamed Yang said that many of 30 or more parents with lead-poisoned children in his apartment complex are beginning to feel helpless in the face of official apathy.

"We have to keep going with this," he said. "There is nothing else we can do."

He said the group plans to lodge a formal complaint against U.S.-owned battery plant Shanghai Johnson Controls, which manufactures car batteries in the local industrial park.

Shanghai environmental officials have said the company is the likely source of the lead, adding that it has used more than 20,000 tons of the heavy metal in its manufacturing processes in just nine months.

Plants to re-open?

Johnson Controls has said it sees no reason to believe that it is to blame, but has pledged to cooperate with government investigators.

"If we don't sue them, and request that they leave the park, they will start up again next year all over again," Yang said.

The parents say they are concerned about official ambiguity over the closure of lead-using plants in the city. Official media have consistently reported that the closures have nothing to do with pollution.

If this is the case, then the plants will be allowed to re-open next year, when a new lead quota comes into effect.

Last month, initial results conducted without official knowledge or approval showed moderate-to-high levels of lead in Kangqiao children's blood, with some measuring 300 micrograms per liter of blood.

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

Children are particularly vulnerable to lead poisoning, which can result in neurological, liver, and kidney impairment, as well as anemia, convulsions, coma, and death.

High levels of lead exposure can cause permanent intellectual and developmental disabilities, including reading and learning disabilities, behavioral problems, hearing loss, attention problems, and disruption in the development of visual and motor functioning.

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





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