Lead Poisoning in Children in Hunan Triggers Protests by Parents and Raises Questions About Governmental Accountability

January 6, 2010

The suspicion of lead poisoning in hundreds of children caused by industrial pollution prompted protests by parents in Hunan province in August 2009. The heavy metal pollution case raises questions about governmental accountability; the plant linked to the lead pollution did not have approval to operate from local environmental authorities. In addition, parents of ill children expressed reservations about the results of lead poisoning tests conducted locally, and also reported that some hospitals would not conduct the tests. The case also raises questions about freedom of expression; local officials reportedly intimidated and warned parents not to talk to the media.

Lead Poisoning in Children Triggers Protests by Parents

On August 8, 2009, approximately 1,000 residents in Wugang city, Hunan province blocked a street, overturned a car, and clashed with 200 officials and police officers during a protest against the Wugang Fine-Processed Manganese Smelting Plant, according to an August 20 New York Times article. The residents reportedly alleged the plant's pollution was linked to lead poisoning in as many as 1,354 children. As reported in an August 20 Xinhua article, when children became sick in July, parents suspected the pollution from the smelter. The plant reportedly had opened in May 2008 without the approval of environmental protection authorities and at least one resident reported smoke and dust pollution whenever the plant was in operation, according to Xinhua. The Hunan case follows another instance of lead poisoning in children in Shaanxi province, which involved hundreds of children. (See previous CECC analysis for more information on the Fengxiang county, Shaanxi province lead poisoning case). The Hunan, Shaanxi and other recently discovered cases of lead poisoning in children are part of a more widespread lead poisoning problem in China. For example, according to a September 4 Wall Street Journal article, the director of Yunnan province's lead prevention office for children, Liu Dakun, said that in Yunnan's mining areas, 50 to 60 percent of children under 14 years old are victims of lead poisoning.

Local Officials Investigate Protesters Alleged Links to Falun Gong

Officials reportedly detained 15 parents who participated in the August 8 protests in Wugang, Hunan province, according to a September 3 Guardian report citing an Associated Press story. Authorities reportedly "accused" the parents of being Falun Gong practitioners or being "influenced" by Falun Gong, a spiritual movement, banned by the Chinese government as being a "cult organization." A September 4 Global Times article reported that the chief of the Wugang Public Security Bureau (PSB) denied detaining parents, saying that "No parents were detained. There were indeed 15 people who participated in the protest and gave themselves up to the police after the protest. ...We just asked them to explain what happened that day and set them free." The same article noted that the chief of the PSB also stated that police were investigating the involvement of Falun Gong adherents in the August 8 protest.

Officials Response to Protests, Intimidate Citizens, and Restrict Free Expression; Some Hospitals Reportedly Refuse to Provide Tests

City officials allegedly suspended operations of the smelter on July 31 according to the August 20 Xinhua article. Residents reportedly protested three times before the local government issued the order to close down the smelter, according to a September 26 Financial Times article (registration required). The August 20 Xinhua article noted that local city officials ordered the immediate closure of the plant on August 13, after the large-scale protests of August 8 had taken place. According to an August 28 Xinhua article (via NetEase), the Hunan and Shaoyang city environmental protection bureaus determined that the manganese smelter was linked to the pollution causing the lead poisoning on August 11. According to the same article, officials detained two of the smelter's executives, and the plant's legal representative, who had fled, turned himself in on August 27.

Wugang officials stated they would provide testing for children affected by the heavy metal pollution, according to an August 18 Southern Metropolis Daily article. Nevertheless, one resident reported that there appeared to be a limited number of "permission slips" available that could be presented for free individual tests, according to an August 26 Radio Free Asia (RFA) article. In addition, residents apparently suspecting government influence over local hospitals, doubted the objectivity of tests conducted locally. Some reportedly took their children instead to a county in Guangxi province for testing, according to the Southern Metropolis Daily article. One resident reported that "...hospitals have been bribed by someone, so the parents never see the correct results," according to the RFA article. The RFA article noted that some residents reported hospitals would not test their children for elevated blood lead levels. One resident who traveled to southern Guangxi province to obtain a test for her two-year-old reported being turned away after revealing she was from Wugang, according to the RFA article. "They knew about the lead poisoning cases in Wugang and they asked if I was from there," RFA reported her as saying.

In late September, officials reportedly said that the soil and water were safe and "declared the problem solved," according to the Financial Times article. The same article reported that hospitals treated 17 children and then released them. Despite the August 11 finding by the Hunan and Shaoyang city environmental protection officials that the manganese smelter was linked to the pollution causing the lead poisoning, Wugang officials reportedly told the Financial Times that children were not showing symptoms of serious industrial lead poisoning. Officials instead assigned blame for the children's high blood lead levels on gasoline residue or pencil lead. One official said that the fevers experienced by children who were treated at a hospital in Changsha were not related to lead; "[m]aybe it's H1N1 [swine flu] from England."

Furthermore, some villagers recounted official intimidation to keep silent about the lead poisoning, according to a September 2 CNN article. A government notice explaining a compensation scheme reportedly cautioned villagers not to "spread rumors" or cause trouble. Parents said hospital officials requested they sign forms agreeing not to discuss the blood poisoning incident with reporters. In addition, a CNN journalist reported being followed while investigating the story.

For more information on government accountability and environmental protection, see Section II―Climate Change and Environment (p. 190) of the CECC 2009 Annual Report.