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article imageChina blames 'pencil-chewing' on lead-poisoning in children

By Karen Graham     Jun 18, 2014 in Environment
Dapu - A Chinese government official in Dapu, Hunan province has suggested that the cause of an outbreak of lead poisoning in over 300 children is the result of "pencil-chewing," downplaying the possibility a chemical plant in the town could be at fault.
Beijing started its crackdown on polluters in April of this year, revising an already existing 1989 anti-pollution law by adding more teeth to the regulations. The revised law is supposed to take effect the first of the year in 2015, but it seems that many provinces and industrial plants haven't gotten the message.
State media is reporting that tests done on children in Dapu, Hunan province showed excessive lead levels in over 300 children, many of them too young to go to school. The head of Dapu's governing body, Su Genlin, told reporters, “When kids are studying, they gnaw on their pencils — that also can cause lead poisoning.”
The official was dismissive of the chemical plant located in the township, as well as the lab reports of airborne dust in the village containing 22 times the legal limit of lead. He also failed to mention the levels of lead, zinc, cadmium and arsenic in the factory's drainage ditch that runs into the village's river. Those levels are three times the acceptable level considered safe.
According to the official news agency, Xinhua, township chief Su Genlin was dressed down and ridiculed online for his remarks. It seems the Chinese character for the heavy metal is also used for pencil, in much the same way that "lead" has a double-meaning in the English language. Lead hasn't been used in pencils since the 1500s.
The People's Daily, the official online mouthpiece of China's ruling communist party, posted an op-ed on Monday, ridiculing the township leader. Commentator Zhang Yusheng wrote, "It is scientific knowledge that pencils are made from graphite. Does this official's statement show ignorance, or just disregard for the people's welfare?"
While people in Dapu are outraged that their children have been subjected to substances that can cause liver, kidney, brain and nervous system damage, they are not alone in their anger. China has been plagued with literally thousands of cases of children being poisoned by lead linked to industrial pollution. It is well known that lead poisoning is the most common pediatric health problem in China today.
A Factory along the Yangtze River.
A Factory along the Yangtze River.
High Contrast
A 2006 study, using existing data revealed that as many as one-third of China's children suffered from illnesses caused by high blood lead levels. The lead pollution has come from metal smelters and a very fast-growing battery industry. In 2011, angry parents of children who had ended up with permanent neurological damage due to lead pollution rioted at the Zhejiang Haijiu Battery Factory.
While the central government has acknowledged the problem, going so far as to shut down many of the battery factories, citizens feel not enough has been done. The chemical plant in Dapu, for example, has been closed by the government while an investigation is carried out. The township's governing body is also being investigated. But the problem is far bigger than just one plant.
In Hunan province, 70 percent of its industrial output is dependent on the Xiangjiang River for water. A study published in in 2012 showed that concentrations of heavy metals in soil samples in the Xiangjiang River Basin were at seriously high levels.
Lead poisoning incidents in China between 2009 and 2011.
Lead poisoning incidents in China between 2009 and 2011.
Human Rights Watch
Further complicating efforts to reduce pollution is the way China's government has "rewarded" local governing officials in the past for increased economic output. Until recently, promotions came solely from a local official's ability to increase economic growth. In the case of the Dapu chemical factory, this meant overlooking environmental consequences, and for that matter, the health of workers and their families, all at the cost of getting high marks in production output.
The reward system changed last year, when Beijing said promotions would be based in part on environmental records, something new to the provinces. Promising to punish violators, the central government shut down the plant on Saturday and suspended three local environmental officials. For over 300 children, the crackdown may have still come too late.
More about hunan province, Lead poisoning, graphite pencils, industrial pollution, Chemical plant
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