Lead-Poisoned Children 'Neglected'

China fails in following up to help children harmed by lead poisoning, report says.

leadchildren2011-305.jpg Chinese parents stand next to their children suffering from lead poisoning at a hospital in Anhui province, Jan. 6, 2011.

Chinese children who suffer lead poisoning as a result of industrial pollution are frequently sent back to live in contaminated environments and refused treatment, according to a new report by the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Local officials often prevent the children from getting the care they need, and intimidate and detain parents who complain, said the report, published online on Wednesday.

"Children with dangerously high levels of lead in their blood are being refused treatment and returned home to contaminated houses in polluted villages," said Joe Amon, HRW's health and human rights director in a statement on the group's website.

"Parents, journalists, and community activists who dare to speak out about lead are detained, harassed, and ultimately silenced," Amon said.

The report details a public-health crisis based on research into lead-contaminated villages in Henan, Yunnan, Shaanxi, and Hunan provinces.

"Local authorities are ignoring the urgent and long-term health consequences of a generation of children continuously exposed to life-threatening levels of lead," the group's statement said.

It said that while the Chinese media have reported an increasing number of such cases around the country in recent years, family members and journalists seeking information about the problem are often intimidated and harassed.

Laws not enforced

China has an exemplary body of environmental protection legislation, but environmental protection officials seldom pack enough political punch to ensure that such laws are implemented by powerful local governments and their corporate vested interests.

The failure to address the health consequences of lead poisoning is a breach of Chinese children's right to health, HRW said.

"It's not enough to penalize factory owners and officials after a village is severely contaminated," Amon said. "The government needs to provide treatment and to make sure that children aren't immediately re-exposed to toxic levels of lead."

Officials in some areas have imposed arbitrary limits on blood lead tests, and even when children do succeed in getting tested, the results are sometimes withheld, the report found.

In January, RFA reported on a group of 23 children from the eastern province of Anhui who were taken to hospital with high levels of lead in their blood, and were later found to have tested within the normal range, in an abrupt turnaround from previous media reports.

Children particularly vulnerable

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.

Battery makers and lead and zinc smelting plants have been blamed for a wave of lead poisoning cases affecting an unknown number of children across China in recent years.

Last month, Guangdong authorities sent a specialist medical team to the province's Heyuan city to treat dozens of children who had been tested for lead in the wake of complaints about pollution from a nearby battery factory.

At the same time, authorities in Zhejiang province detained the boss of a similar plant after more than 300 people, including 99 children, were sickened by lead pollution.

But HRW said such efforts, while laudable, are just beginning to scratch the surface of a nationwide problem.

"The Chinese government has begun to realize that the environmental cost of massive toxic pollution is unacceptable," Amon said.

"Unfortunately, it has yet to address the health consequences for the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of children who face the dire consequences of the government's neglect."

Reported by Luisetta Mudie.

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