Millions of Chinese children suffer from lead poisoning despite a crackdown on contamination, and local officials are systematically withholding the right to medical testing to cover up the problem, a rights group alleges.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a report Wednesday that authorities often are depriving victims of needed testing, treatment and prevention. It also says the government has failed to force polluting factories to close and clean up contamination despite its high-profile effort to crack down on heavy metals pollution.
"Children with dangerously high levels of lead in their blood are being refused treatment and returned home to contaminated houses in polluted villages," said Joe Amon, health and human rights director at Human Rights Watch.
Officials at China's ministries of health, work safety and environmental protection declined to comment on the allegations.
China has launched a campaign to crack down on poisoning by heavy metals such as lead and to clean up contamination. Hundreds of lead-acid battery factories were closed in eastern China's Zhejiang province after several major pollution cases were spotlighted by state-run media.
In the most recently reported case, more than 600 people, including 103 children, were reported sickened from tinfoil processing workshops in the Zhejiang town of Yangxunqiao. All the children and 26 adults were suffering from severe lead poisoning, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.
In detailed interviews in heavily contaminated villages in four provinces — Hunan, Henan, Yunnan and Shaanxi — Human Rights Watch's researchers found authorities were systematically seeking to silence those who sought help or spoke out, Amon said in a phone interview.
The report cites scores of parents and other relatives of sick children who said they were barred from getting tested, refused test results or given apparently distorted readings. The researchers guaranteed anonymity to their sources to protect them from possible retaliation.
"If there's really going to be attention and response to the sources of the lead poisoning there needs to be a way the Chinese people can bring the issue up to local officials or journalists, without facing intimidation, harassment and detention," he said.
The group estimates that millions of children suffer from lead poisoning.
There are no official figures on the exact extent of the problem in China, despite national data on other major public health threats such as tuberculosis and hepatitis. But reports by medical experts say a majority of children in many regions have high blood lead levels.
Lead poisoning can damage the nervous, muscular and reproductive systems. Children are particularly at risk because their bodies absorb up to half of what they are exposed to in the environment, far more than adults' will. Exposure can disable them for life.
"Chinese experts are saying lead is one of the leading causes of pediatric health problems," Amon said. "The government needs to provide treatment and make sure children aren't immediately re-exposed to toxic levels of lead."
Banning leaded gasoline in the late 1990s helped China to reduce one of its biggest sources of lead poisoning. But an explosion in production of cars, electric scooters and electronics has driven soaring demand for batteries, while environmental controls on production and recycling of products containing lead are laxly enforced.
"The volume is unprecedented," said Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs, a non-governmental group in Beijing. "If all the manufacturing could follow legal requirements the problem should not be so bad but unfortunately a large number of factories cannot even meet the legal requirements."
Many parents interviewed for the Human Rights Watch report said that even when their children were confirmed to have dangerously high levels of lead in their blood, doctors just advised them to give their children milk or certain types of foods.
"It's really about educating people and not giving them false information, whether its blood lead testing or not telling people that it can be cured by eating apples and garlic, which is just false," Amon said.
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