GAOHE, China (Reuters) - Parents of children poisoned by lead in eastern China are demanding answers and compensation from the government after the country’s latest incident of heavy metal pollution made more than 200 sick.
Authorities in Gaohe in eastern Anhui province have closed two battery plants blamed for the poisoning just a stone’s throw from residences in contravention of planning laws, according to state media.
Some of the children affected are just a few months old.
“Children are precious to us. You tell me what I can do. I don’t have many requests. The government has to stand up and give the children some answers and help,” said 48-year-old Li Xiaoai, grandmother of three-year-old Jiang Shuangchao.
She said her granddaughter was found to have 245 micrograms of lead per liter of blood, and displayed symptoms of lead poisoning such as lack of appetite and fatigue.
Levels of more than 100 micrograms of lead per liter of blood are considered to be harmful and residents said most of the children in the community tested above those levels.
“I can’t just leave the child at home and let her die,” Li told Reuters.
Poisoning cases involving children are especially sensitive in China following a scandal in 2008 when at least six children died and nearly 300,000 became ill from drinking powdered milk laced with the industrial compound, melamine.
China set up a compensation fund for children whose health was seriously damaged, but the children of many of the parents who allied with parent activist Zhao Lianhai were not eligible for compensation.
Zhao was given a two-and-a-half year jail sentence in November for “inciting social disorder” after organizing a website for parents of the melamine-poisoned children.
In Gaohe, some residents are also demanding a probe into how their homes were allowed to be built in an industrial zone.
“Actually this problem has something to do with the government. To put it practically, an industrial area should have industrial uses,” said Xiao Zhang.
“In general, there should not be any residential areas inside here but the government put the residents here. This should not have been allowed,” the 29-year-old added.
He said one of the battery factories had been operating in the industrial park since 2007, about the same time his family was relocated to their current home.
Residents said children who tested above 250 micrograms of lead per liter of blood had been sent to the main children’s hospital in the provincial capital of Hefei for treatment.
But families said those children whose lead levels were below that point were left to fend for themselves.
They said their families were just given 400 yuan ($60) and a box of apples and bananas by the local government when the lead poisoning cases first came to light last month.
“I just hope the government will give us some economic compensation so that we can buy some nutritious things to feed our children and that they can get well soon,” said one resident, who gave her family name as Zhang.
“They have to deal with the source of this pollution. There is another battery plant that is still in production further up there. This one (opposite us) has shut but the one further up is still in production and it is quite near our home,” she complained.
Lead poisoning, which often builds up slowly as a result of repeated exposure to small amounts of lead, can damage various parts of the body including the nervous and reproductive systems and the kidneys, and it can cause high blood pressure and anemia.
China’s environment ministry has called for urgent measures to tackle heavy metal poisoning as cases of mass poisoning have created widespread public anger.
In 2009, protesters broke into a smelting works they blamed for the lead poisoning of more than 600 children, smashing trucks and tearing down fences.
Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Nick Macfie