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The health and environmental costs of industrial growth in China

After last year’s fresh scandal over melamine-laced milk powder for babies, today reports are emerging from China of another case of child poisoning. Twenty-four school children, ranging in age from nine months to 16 years, are in hospital with lead poisoning in the eastern province of Anhui in Huaning county. Over 200 children in the area have been found with elevated levels of lead in their bodies. The source of the metal pollution is two plants manufacturing lead batteries. Though official guidelines ban the location of such factories within 500 metres of residential areas, one of the plants lies close to houses in Gaohe Township, separated only by a road.

The affected children live in homes close to the factories and have been tested at the Anhui Provincial Children’s Hospital. A director at the hospital confirmed that many were suffering from high traces of lead in their blood. A level of 100 micrograms per litre is thought to impair brain development in young children. One five-year old boy was found to have 331 micrograms in his system. The boy’s mother, Huang Dazhai, affirmed “my son is now very cranky and restless [and] yells a lot.” Lead poisoning can build up slowly with repeated exposure to traces in the environment. Even low amounts can cause damage to the body, affecting organs like the kidney, as well as the nervous and reproductive systems. High blood pressure and anaemia can also result and in young children, lead poisoning can affect brain development and cause learning difficulties and behavioural problems.

In 2009, a similar case of lead poisoning among 600 children caused protests and unrest outside smelting factories in China, when local residents smashed up vehicles and tore down fences. The authorities in Anhui province have therefore been quick to react, closing down both battery plants.

China is the world leader in the production of lead batteries for cars and electric bikes, but the country’s growing industrialisation is now a sensitive issue, because the damage caused to the environment. This week, the government’s top economic adviser at the National Development and Reform Commission, Zhang Ping, warned Chinese provinces that they should no longer have ambitions to grow economically at any cost. Officials are not only worried about the energy consumption which would be required to meet ambitious targets, they are also concerned about the impact on the environment. Years of break-neck growth have taken their toll on the environment and Beijing is now trying to undo some of that damage. Zhang Ping has therefore asked provincial governing bodies to take account of “energy, environment, water and land” when setting targets. The government also wants to avoid the kind of public anger which naturally follows when children suffer from the effects of corporate greed and environmental irresponsibility.

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