Human Rights Watch says local authorities in lead contaminated villages in the provinces of Henan, Yunnan, Shaanxi and Hunan provinces are ignoring the long term health consequences of children.
Joe Amon, is the health and human rights director at Human Rights Watch... and I asked him first how widespread the problem of lead poisoning is in China.
Presenter: Liam Cochrane
Speaker: Joe Amon, the health and human rights director at Human Rights Watch
AMON: Well, there have been a number of studies in China over the past decade or so that have found that among children, high levels lead can be found in as many as one out of three. Our research was in four provinces in the country and we found just really long term chronic problems that were occurring in all of these cities.
COCHRANE: Do you think the problem could be similar across the country?
AMON: Absolutely, there has been studies in really every part of China, in Beijing, in more rural areas. Lead poisoning is occurring from air pollution that's coming in food, from crops that are grown in contaminated soil. It's also coming from paint and other things like children's toys that have lead paint on them.
COCHRANE: Now the Chinese government is starting to recognise the dangers of lead poisoning from its industrial expansion, but not really following through in a health system. Can you explain what sort of treatment people get when they come to the government or to the authorities with complaints about lead levels?
AMON: Well, that's exactly right. The Minister in Environmental Protection has made strong statements about how big a problem this is, but it's only really examined the problem from aspects of pollution and occasionally shutting down factories. What needs to happen is to recognise that when kids are exposed to lead, it causes a life long disability, intellectual, physical disabilities and right now none of them are getting the effective kind of treatment they need. Part of the reason for that is it's very difficult, there isn't a simple medical solution for lead poisoning, that requires cleaning up the environment, making sure that kids aren't re-exposed to lead after they do receive treatment. But what we found in our report is even more disturbing which is that kids are being denied access to testing, they're being turned away when they have high levels of lead, they're told there's nothing that can be done. Sometimes they're given false information like if they just drink more milk or have garlic, apples or eggs that will help and it's leaving parents in particular just really distraught and feeling very helpless.
COCHRANE: What's the situation for people, not just parents, but other people in civil society perhaps who are trying to advocate on this issue?
AMON: Well, the real problem is journalists who've investigated these sites in a lot of cases have been chased out of town, parents and environmental activists who are protesting, factories that are spewing lead into the environment are intimidated, harassed, even detained. And what we've seen is other emerging health issues in China is that when this kind of censorship and harassment takes place, it delays finding pragmatic and effective solutions. So with HIV with SARS, with the melamine milk contamination when you clamp down on any kind of aid amongst civil society, the problem gets prolonged, more difficult, more costly and there becomes a larger cost, both economic and in terms of human lives.
COCHRANE: And what are you recommending that the Chinese government does?
AMON: There's a number of things that really need to happen and need to happen soon. One of them quite simply is to set up a surveillance system so that the problem can be better understood. It's not very difficult to do blood lead testing. They can do it nationally, they can repeat it yearly to be better able to understand the trend in this, whether it's getting better or worse and also which parts of the country are the hardest hit.
Beyond that, there can be education, so the parents understand what lead poisoning is, they can ensure that occupational exposures are addressed, so parents who work in factories who are being exposed to lead at work aren't coming home from the factories and contaminating their homes and their children when they walk through the door.
There's a number of things that are harder that include shutting down factories that are spewing lead into the air, retrofitting them with environmental protection, but there's also the damage that's been done, which is cleaning up the environment, where soil has been contaminated and also moving people living in these highly toxic environments to safer settings, so they're exposure to lead is reduced.