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Lead pollution from foil-making in China poisons children

Over 100 children in China’s eastern province of Zhejiang have been poisoned by lead materials used in workshops making tin-foil, according to reports from the Xinhua news agency.

The children, aged 14 or younger, were found to have more than 250 micrograms of lead per litre of blood in their system. Local health officials also reported that 26 adults were found to have severe lead poisoning and were receiving treatment along with the children in local hospitals.

The workers and their children were exposed to the lead materials in their family-run businesses. The township of Yangxunqiao in Zhejiang has around 200 tinfoil-making workshops and production in 25 of these has been suspended. With the pressure to supply cheap goods, regulation of manufacturing processes is often extremely lax or non-existent.

Exposure to lead is particularly harmful for children, who absorb and retain heavy metals in the brain more easily. High levels of lead in the body can therefore lead to learning difficulties and behavioural problems. Agencies such as the World Health Organisation and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) have long highlighted the dangers to children from lead pollution or where young people are involved in work which brings them into contact with lead, such as dismantling car batteries.

In China, the government’s annual state of the environment report published last week refers to over twenty cases of heavy metal pollution since 2010. One such case occurred in January this year, when 24 children were hospitalised in the eastern province of Anhui after high levels of lead were found in youngsters living close to two lead battery plants. In 2009, lead poisoning among 600 children caused protests at a smelting factory in China, when local residents smashed up vehicles and tore down fences in their anger.

Even before this latest case in Zhejiang province, the Chinese government promised to crack down on polluters and one industry body expects around three-quarters of lead-acid battery plants to be phased out of action over the next few years. In its state of the environment report, the government also reaffirms its commitment to set up a special 1.5 billion yuan (2.3 billion dollars) fund for the “prevention and control of heavy metal pollution”. Understanding the “great challenges” faced by the growth in industrialisation, the government has indicated its recognition that action must be taken to prevent damage caused to health and “social stability” from heavy metal pollution.

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