HONG KONG—Residents of one of the poorest regions of central China have staged repeated demonstrations outside a zinc smelting plant near their homes after their children were diagnosed with lead poisoning.
Villagers in Fengxiang county, in the north-central province of Shaanxi, began a wave of protests, sit-ins, and official complaints earlier this year after their children began to get sick.
A total of 138 children in the village have been found to have low-level, chronic lead poisoning, their relatives said.
"The underground wells have been polluted by wastewater and exhaust fumes from the zinc smelting factory nearby," a villager surnamed Huang from Madakou village in the same county said.
"The water looks clear and has no apparent taste, but zinc and lead are very harmful to the body. [Villagers] have now reduced the amount of wastewater they are using to irrigate crops such as maize and millet."
"Zinc and lead have a chronic effect on the body, building up over time. This can affect children's growth and development, and even cause stunting," Huang added.
Smoke also reported
A resident of nearby Sunjia Nantou village surnamed Sun said her village was affected by smoke emitted by the plant.
"Although the refinery plant has provided villagers with some job opportunities, the lead poisoning has forced many families to send their kids to schools at other locations, increasing their living costs," she said.
The zinc smelting plant was set up five years ago as part of a drive to develop one of the most impoverished regions of the country, but has had a significant environmental impact since beginning production.
Huang said the plant also emits foul-smelling smoke which blows across the two neighboring villages from time to time, sparking repeated complaints from villagers to government officials.
But he said that no changes have resulted.
"The government departments won't take any notice if you complain. The local officials are all getting money from these enterprises," he said.
"They want us to leave, so they can demolish our houses. They don't care whether we live or die."
An employee who answered the phone at the zinc smelting plant said protesting villagers had staged sit-ins at the factory gates, but that the demonstrators had dispersed peacefully without affecting production.
"The protesters didn't make much difference to the running of the factory that day. As for pollution of the water supply of local residents, I don't believe that this is the case, because the environmental protection department comes to carry out tests on our wastewater every year."
"Our wastewater complies with the required standards, and we have a certificate to prove it," she said.
An official who answered the phone at the Fengxiang county government said a task force remains at the factory carrying out investigations into the villagers' allegations.
"The children are now undergoing treatment," he said.
"There has been no increase in such cases. We are still investigating the situation. If you want more details, you'll have to ask the propaganda department."
Cement factory blamed
Meanwhile, residents of Zhadu village, near Lengshuijiang city in the south-central province of Hunan, staged a sit-in outside a nearby cement factory after their children fell sick, one after the other, with abdominal pains, vomiting, headache, and dizziness.
Some tried to lodge official complaints with the government after four of the children were hospitalized, but said they were later beaten by gangs of armed thugs.
"The cement there is causing pollution," a resident of a neighboring village said.
"A lot of people have gone for blood tests and have found that there are problems. Probably dozens of people, out of about one or two thousand people."
Villagers from Zhadu complained to China's Environmental Protection Agency in 2006.
But the nearby cement factory refused to change its equipment or to install equipment that would clean up the pollution, they said.
Villagers then staged a mass protest in April of this year, blocking a nearby road and forcing the factory to halt production.
Local officials confirmed that the villagers had complained about the pollution.
"There were a lot [of complaints]. But we have already dealt with them. It is the responsibility of our leaders," a local government official said.
"I am not familiar with the actual details. The cement factory stopped production for a time. But now they have sent samples for testing, and it has nothing to do with the cement factory."
Repeated calls to the No. 5 Cement Factory, which the villagers said was responsible for the high levels of lead in their blood tests, went unanswered during office hours.
Original reporting by Lillian Cheung, Fung Yat-yiu, and Bat Tse-mo in Cantonese, and in Mandarin by Qiao Long and Gao Shan. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Additional translation by Jia Yuan. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.