HONG KONG—More than 80 children in the southwestern Chinese province of Yunnan are suffering from lead poisoning linked to illegal gold smelting in the region, according to officials and local media.
An employee who answered the phone at the Beiya village clinic in the popular tourist region of Dali said it had seen an unusual number of cases of lead poisoning among children in recent weeks, all of whom had been referred to the county-level hospital for treatment.
“There really weren’t that many cases before. Now there are a lot more,” she said.
Asked if the pollution came from factories or private backyard smelting operations, she said, “I think it’s probably both. [The factory] has already stopped.”
An employee who answered the phone at the Xiyi township government, which oversees Beiya village, also confirmed the problem.
“This has already come to the attention of the government,” he said. “The county Party committee and the government are already very concerned about it. I’m not sure exactly how much they are doing.”
According to figures from the Heqing county press office, at least 84 of the children had dangerously high blood levels of lead.
Authorities realized that the children were suffering from lead poisoning only after they administered routine health checks, revealing larger-than-expected numbers of victims.
A total of 1,600 people have been tested for lead poisoning out of 2,300 who were potentially affected, including 500 children, but further cases are expected to emerge, local media reported.
Officials from the Dali Bai Autonomous Region environmental protection department have also investigated, finding 20,000 mg of lead per kilo of earth in the area, many times the target level of 250 mg for agricultural land in China.
Beijing has pledged to tackle heavy metal poisoning following a series of angry and sometimes violent protests by parents across the country.
Heqing already has a long history of lead mining, and the county produces gold and silver from refining the lead.
Serious health threat
The government shut down several of the smaller smelters decades ago, but some have since reopened and are carrying out a brisk trade.
Lead poisoning can damage the nervous system, as well as the reproductive system and kidneys. It can also give people high blood pressure and anemia.
Children who are exposed to lead often end up with behavior problems and irreversible learning difficulties.
Environmental activist Song Xinzhou of the nongovernment group “Green Beijing” said there are still many problems in China inherited from the past, in spite of a recent spike in awareness of environmental issues.
“Slowly they are beginning to make some changes,” Song said. “This is coming from both ordinary people and the government.”
“But even though they have gradually started to make some environmental news available, it’s still not ideal, and it is going to take a very long time,” he added.
According to Ming Xia, professor of politics at the City University of New York, economic development must go hand-in-hand with a change in attitudes to the environment.
“Is there education that makes people aware that while we want to increase our standard of living, the purpose of this is to lengthen people’s lives and improve their quality of life?” Xia asked.
“Ordinary Chinese people on the whole don’t really understand these things,” he said.
Original reporting in Cantonese by Pan Jiaqing and in Mandarin by Tang Qiwei. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Translated from the Chinese and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.