When state-run agency Xinhua was also doing investigative journalism…
In August 2009, the Economic Information Daily, a newspaper owned and operated by the state-run Xinhua news agency, released a series of hard-hitting reports investigating the unusually high rate of lead poisoning among children in the city of Fengxiang, Shaanxi Province. The story, written by Xinhua reporters Chen Gang and Liu Tonglian, revealed that 84% of the children tested in the contaminated area had excessive levels of lead in their blood and exposed the nearby Dongling Metal Smelting plant for polluting the villages’ air and water.
While most local newspapers remained silent or downplayed the seriousness of the issue, Xinhua’s attention emboldened angered parents to continue protesting and the Dongling Metal Smelting plant was forced to temporarily suspend its activities and make environmental improvements. Officials from the plant as well as the local government were subject to disciplinary actions.
About Economic Information Daily
The Economic Information Daily, based in Beijing, founded in 1981, was China’s first professional economic newspaper. It is owned and managed by state-run Xinhua News Agency and still operates to date.
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An investigation into the Fengxiang ‘lead poisoning’ incident
Of 731 children in two villages, 615 children had excessive lead levels in their blood! However, the responsible party identified by the local villagers, Shaanxi Dongling Group Smelting Company, claimed that it had a qualified result for the EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) report and that it had not received any environment-related fines since starting production.
On the night of 13 August, according to the recent authoritative information from the reporter of the Economic Information Daily, among the 731 children located within the EIA scope of the smelting enterprise in Changqing town of Fengxiang county who have received the qualified authoritative blood lead investigation by the medical team of Xi’an Central Hospital, 615 children have excessive blood lead level.
Among them, 166 of them have over 250ug/1 blood lead levels: 163 have moderate lead poisoning, and 3 have heavy lead poisoning. The on-site reporter for the Economic Information Daily saw that Dongling Group Smelting Company, which was established and started production in 2006, is adjacent to Madaokou village and Sunjia Nantou village.
Some residential buildings of these two villages are only around 100 meters away from the factory. Only Gaojutou village is within a little further distance. Because of this, many villagers “are very sure” that the excessive blood lead levels are due to this smelting company.
Regarding the villagers’ doubts, the enterprise has another argument. Sun Hong, the chief manager of Dongling Group Smelting Company said that the EIA reports of the company’s smelting and coking projects have compliant results. The company hasn’t received any fines regarding environmental issues. “I believe the emissions of our company have reached the standards. Of course. I refer to industrial standards, not living standards.”
The reporter got to know that even though the industrial emissions and discharges of enterprise examined by the Department of Ecology and Environment have reached the required standards, it doesn’t mean that it’s completely harmless to the health of the nearby residents.
The differences between the industrial standards and living standards make the lead-affected villagers confused. Many people think that people-oriented principles are now conflicted. The standard of being eco-friendly should consider people’s health. Even if the company’s industrial emissions and discharges meet industrial standards, they should not be permitted if they contaminate people’s bodies.
Strikingly, according to the investigation of the reporter at the Economic Information Daily in Fengxiang county recently: when the factory was built, Shann’xi Dongling Group Smelting Company agreed with the local government to relocate the nearby residents within 3 years due to potential contamination. However, impacted by the value of ‘Development over Environment’ and due to some ‘objective reasons’, the relocation plan has been delayed until now.
The ‘lead poisoning’ incident led to the local government’s urgent restart of the relocation plan of the ‘unsafe zone residents’ which was upheld for several years. Despite knowing the mistake and trying to remedy it, the people were offended: How can the government disregard the health of the people for the sake of development? ‘Development over Environment’ not only harms the health of the masses but also hurts the government’s image.
Over one hundred children had excessive ‘blood lead’. The villagers’ hearts are clouded.
In the three villages of Changqing Zhen, Fengxiang County of Shaanxi province, the shadow of ‘excessive blood lead’ recently broke the peaceful summer vacation of nearly a thousand children. Over one hundred of these children went to hospitals themselves and tested positive for excessive blood lead levels. The villagers suspected that this was caused by a nearby lead-zinc smelting enterprise.
For children with excessive blood lead levels, the local government organized authoritative tests and prepared treatments for them. On the night of August 13, our reporter got to know the latest information from the press conference held by the Fengxiang County Government of Shaanxi Province.
Among the 731 children in two villages who are located within the EIA scope of the Changing town smelting enterprise and who received the qualified authoritative blood lead investigation by the medical team of Xi’an Central Hospital, 615 children have excessive blood lead levels. Among them, 166 of them have over 250ug/1 blood lead: 163 have moderate lead poisoning and 3 have heavy lead poisoning.
These 166 children need in-hospital chelation therapy, and the treatment fees are covered by the county’s finance. Other children only need to carry non-medical lead drive at home, and the local government will send medical personals for guidance. The blood lead tests of several children located in the extended scope of EIA are still undergoing. In the meantime, the local government is examining the sources of contamination. Many villagers anticipated that the government departments can take approaches as soon as possible to ensure children not to be endangered by lead contamination anymore.
“Such a small child with such a high blood lead level. How can one not be afraid?”
“My child is only 22 months old but with such high blood lead level. How can one not be afraid of that?” On 11 August, Li Yongfeng, a villager from Nantou of Fengxiang county, Shaanxi province worriedly told the reporter. As shown by the report of trace elements in blood done in Baoji Center Hospital on 3 August, his son Li Gengqiu tested 180 ug/1 blood lead, higher than the normal standard of within 100ug/1.
Over the past week, in Sunjia Nantou village, Madaokou village, Gaojutou village of Fengxiang county, Shannxi province, blood lead, the originally unfamiliar word has become a keen topic of people and raised their worries. Anxiety, anger, uneasiness, and resignation are shown on many villagers’ faces.
The ‘lead poisoning’ incident came to be known firstly because of a child called Fan Miao. In the first half of this year, Miao Fan, the six-year-old daughter of Maodaokou villager Miao Jianke has diagnosed with ‘lead toxic gastritis’ from a blood routine examination in Fengxiang hospital. On 12 August, when little Fan Miao was watching ‘Tom and Jerry’ with relish at home, her mother told the reporter that after having taken six boxes of lead drive medicines, Miao Fan’s condition has completely improved.
Out of the expectation of Miao Fan’s family, the excessive blood lead she had tested by chance ‘detonated’ fire to the ‘lead poisoning’ incident in Fengxiang county that has received much attention. As they are suspicious that the lead contamination was caused by the nearly Dongling Group Smelting Company, the villagers took their children one after the other to hospitals in Baoji city to have a blood lead test.
According to the statistics of the Changqing government on 7 August, among the 239 children who tested blood lead, the reports of trace elements in the blood of 138 children show that some of the heavy metal indicators are abnormal and suggest that they may have excessive blood lead. Since then, because more children one after the other went to the hospital themselves for tests, the number of children suspected of excessive blood lead level is still increasing.
During the visit to three villages, the reporter found that as shown by villagers, the children’s blood test reports issued by some hospitals in Baoji city reveal that their blood lead’s numeric value concentrates on the interval of 100 to 400 ug/1. After comparing this to the numeric values for reference provided by the report, they had strong reactions.
He Lulu, the 14-year-old daughter of He Wanrong and Madaokou villager, tested 301.897ug/l for her blood lead on 10 August. He said to Wanrong: ‘My child is growing her body now but has such high blood lead. How can one not worry about it?’
‘If there is any problem, one should get treatment as soon as possible. If there is no problem, the parents can rest assured.’
Over 100 villagers received the blood lead test results issued by some Baoji hospitals which set them restless. However, according to medical standards, whether these children’s blood lead levels exceed the standard needs further diagnosis done by authoritative test organisations. Therefore, Fengxiang county entrusted the medical team of Xi’an Central Hospital and authoritative and scientific blood lead tests for over 1, 000 children under 14 years old have conducted.
Guo Baoke, the chief physician at the Occupational Poisoning Department of Xi’an Central Hospital, led the medical team to go to Gaojutou village to take blood samples for the children. These blood samples will be sent back to Xi’an for blood lead tests. He said that the medical team entered the villages and set up blood collection points on 7, 10, and 11 August, and the team conducted a general test on blood lead for free for the children under 14 years old in Madaokuo village and Sunjia Nantou village who are within the EIA scope. The medical team has taken in total of 731 blood samples. At the same time, to further eliminate the doubts of some masses, the medical team also took blood samples for tests for 286 children under 14 years old in Gaojutou village who are beyond the EIA scope.
According to Guo Baoke, the tests that villagers’ children have taken are mostly peripheral blood lead tests. A more accurate test result needs to be confirmed by two rounds of venous blood lead tests conducted by medical work units with qualifications.
During the visit, the reporter found that Fengxiang county and Changqing town have organised over 100 cadres and medical personals to visit villagers’ homes and to promote knowledge about hyperplumbemia to the masses. The Fengxiang County Government stated that it has studied and formulated a treatment plan and has prepared treatment for children with excessive blood lead.
‘After the test result is released, if there is any problem, one should get treatment as soon as possible; if there is no problem, the parents can rest assured’ , Sun Yagang and some other Sunjia Nantou villagers said.
‘Whether there is contamination or not, let’s hide first.’
Dong Xiaoting, the 11-year-old daughter of Madaokou villager Dong Cunhui tested 102.653ug/l in her blood lead test in Baoji People’s Hospital on 31 July. This result was only a little higher than the normal standard but Dong Cunhui has already decided not to let her child go to schools in the village. The village’s primary school is next to the smelting company. Worried that his child would be affected by the lead contamination, he decided to transfer his child (to another school). He has already enrolled his child in a private boarding school in Qishan county 30 kilometers away. The tuition and accommodation fee is 2100 RMB per semester. ‘The tuition fee is a bit high. But for sake of our child’s safety, we can’t do anything else’, said Dong Cunhui.
Although the source of the local lead contamination has not been confirmed, the severity of the excessive blood lead is different, and the minor blood lead excession can be cured through diet conditioning, in these three affected villages, many villagers have changed their look when hearing lead and are looking for other ways for their children to go to school. In Madaokou village, over 30 children like Dong Xiaoting have enrolled in schools elsewhere. Many have chosen private primary schools with higher fees.
According to Guo Baoke, compared to adults, children are more easily affected by lead contamination and there is no need to panic. For children, a blood lead level over 100ug/1 is abnormal, between 100ug/1 and 199ug/1 is hyper plumbemia; from 200ug/l to 249ug/l is mild lead poisoning, from 250ug/l to 449ug/l is moderate lead poisoning, and over 450ug/l is heavy lead poisoning. Only when one’s blood lead level is over 250ug/1, Interventional treatment is necessary.
During the visit to Changqing town, the reporter found that the local government has arranged personnel to promote the knowledge about preventing hyperplumbemia to the masses. However, to get people’s understanding and cooperation, apparently, more efforts are needed to be made. Li Ziqi, the child of Sunjia Nantou villager Sun Xifeng, had tested 263 ug/1 for blood lead level. Sun Xifeng said: ‘If the child’s blood lead exceeds the standard, now is the time to isolate the child from the source of contamination. But it’s not feasible now. How worrying it is!’
It is difficult to confirm whether ‘pollution discharge has reached to the standard’ or not. The ‘relocation promise’ is still on the shelf.
According to the reporter’s recent investigation in Fengxing county, when Shaanxi Dongling Group Smelting Company was just established, it had promised to relocate the nearby residents within 3 years with the government. However, affected by the value of ‘Development over Environment’, and due to some ‘objective reasons’, the relocation plan has been delayed until now. The ‘lead poisoning’ incident led to the local government’s urgent restart of the relocation plan of the ‘unsafe zone residents’ which was upheld for several years. Despite knowing the mistake and trying to remedy it, the masses’ hearts hurt: How can the government disregard the health of the people for the sake of development?
The ‘lead poisoning’ incident has provoked public outrage
On the morning of 11 August, in order to hear feedback from Dongling Group Smelting Company, some Gaojutou villagers of Changqing Town of Fengxiang county blocked the smelting factory cars that were passing by the village entrance. The villager Tong Yafeng told the reporter: ‘Tens of village kids went to Baoji and tested for excessive blood lead. People are anxious to death to block their cars. They hope this problem can be solved as soon as possible.
‘Such a big thing happened. The masses are angry, and the grassroots cadres often get scolded and even beaten. We can’t eat or sleep well.’ Liu Shengxiang, the party branch secretary of Sunjia Nantou village said. ‘But we can only submit to humiliation silently and work for the masses patiently. We hope people can understand. We tell people that there will be a satisfactory result.’
Developed from a village-run collective enterprise in Dongling village of Baoji city, Shaanxi Dongling Group is a company focusing on logistics, trade, and metal smelting. It is the biggest private enterprise in Shaanxi province. Since 203, Dongling Group has invested in Changqing town of Fengxiang county and established factories there. In 2006, Dongling Group set up a lead and zinc smelting project with an annual production of 100, 000 tons, and a coking project with an annual production of 700, 000 tons. Dongling Group has become one of the large-scale industrial enterprises in Fengxiang county. Last year, this smelting enterprise paid 123 million RMB taxes in total, and 24 million RMB of the paid taxes contributed to the local fiscal revenue. This amount accounts for 17% of the overall local fiscal revenue of Fengxiang county.
‘The masses didn’t really agree when the smelting enterprise was just established.’ Sun Canglin, a Sunjia Nantou villager told the reporter. Dongling Group Smelting Company has occupied in total of about 1,000 mu of arable land in Sunjia Nantou Village and Madaokou Village. During the expropriation of land at the end of 2006, the village representative once petitioned and reported the low compensation standards and possible pollution. Later, the compensation standard for land expropriation was raised from 38,000 RMB per mu to 45,000 RMB per mu, but the solution to the pollution problem was rarely mentioned.
The Fengxiang government’s examination and treatment of children with suspected excessive blood lead and their investigation on the smelting factory have been going through tensely at the moment. But villagers are even more strongly dissatisfied with the smelting company and the government than before. The children of Madaokou villagers Hou Guili, Lei Ming, Pan Xiaoxia, Ma Yinsheng, Yang Junyan, and Lei Yuxiao had tested for excessive blood lead themselves. They said emotionally: ‘We hope the smelting company move as soon as possible!’
‘Pollution discharge has reached the standard’ versus “Blood lead excession”. Who is right and who is wrong?
The reporter saw that Dongling Group Smelting Company, which was established and started production in 2006, is very adjacent to Madaokou village and Sunjia Nantou village. Some residential buildings for the masses of these two villages are only around 100 meters away from the factory. Only Gaojutou village is within a little further distance. Because of this reason, many villagers “are very sure” that they suspected that the excessive blood lead results from this smelting company. Some residential buildings of these two villages are only around 100 meters away from the factory. Only Gaojutou village is within a little bit further distance. Because of this reason, many villagers “are very sure” to suspect blood lead results from the smelting enterprise.
Regarding the villagers’ doubts, the enterprise has another argument. Sun Hong, the chief manager of Dongling Group Smelting Company said that different from the contamination of most heavy metals, lead contamination has multiple sources. Food, toys, home furnishing, and car exhausts can all result in lead contamination to children, so when it comes to children’s excessive blood lead, it is not really an optimistic phenomenon. Dongling Group Smelting Enterprise takes environmental protection issues very seriously. For a project with a total investment of 600 million RMB, the investment in environmental protection is over 100 million RMB. In addition, the EIA reports of the company’s smelting and coking projects have qualified results. The company hasn’t received any fines regarding environmental issues. ‘I believe the emissions of our company have reached the standards. Of course. I refer to industrial standards, not living standards.’
The report got to know that even though the enterprise’s industrial emissions and discharges examined by the Department of Ecology and Environment have reached the regulated standards, it doesn’t mean that it’s completely harmless to the health of the nearby residents. Therefore, the test result of the samples of water, air, and soil nearby. Dongling Group by the Department of Ecology and Environment probably reached the required industrial emission standards. As such, it will be very difficult to confirm the contamination source of the excessive blood lead of the nearby children.
The differences between the industrial standards and living standards make the lead-affected villagers confused. Many people think that people-oriented principles are now stressed. the standard of being eco-friendly should consider people’s health. Even if the company’s industrial emissions and discharges meet industrial standards, they should not be permitted if they contaminate people’s body.
The ‘lead poisoning’ incident should have been avoided?
Located in western Central Shaanxi plain, the agriculture-focused county Fengxiang is one of the “star counties” of Shaanxi province whose economy has been recently fast-developing. Due to the lack of resources and the disconnection of the railway, high-speed road, and the lack of location advantages, Fengxiang county used to be a typical highly populated and financially poor county. Before 2002, the local fiscal revenue of Fengxiang County was only more than 50 million RMB, and the per capita net income of farmers was only 1,600 RMB. Several years after 2002, Fengxiang county vigorously attracted investment to achieve industrialization. Last year, its local fiscal revenue exceeded 100 million RMB. The settlement of Dongling Group Smelting Company in Fengxiang once made Fengxiang ‘pride’, as the company was a pivot for Fengxiang to become a strong industrial county.
Sunjia Nantou villager Sun Canglin said: ‘Dongling Group Smelting Company is a big project that Fengxiang county has attracted from its offering business opportunities and seeking for investment. The enterprise has huge contributions to the county’s economy. We can understand that. But we hope that the government can balance development and environment and well protect the masses’ interests.’
In fact, Sun Canglin’s wishes had been considered. According to Sun Hong, the chief manager of Dongling Group Smelting Company, before the factory was built, the factory had reached an agreement with the Fengxiang County Government. The county government promised to relocate the residents within 500 meters’ distance of the factory in 3 batches within 3 years. The EIA Report on Shaanxi Dongling ISP Smelting Project (namely Fengxiang Smelting Company, a note from the reporter] issued by related organisations in March 2004 also indicates that the project’s sanitary protection distance is confirmed better to be 1000 meters. All residents within this distance will need to relocate.
What makes people heartbroken and puzzling is that this agreement has been ‘shelved’ since then and has not been implemented. Pu Yiming, mayor of Changqing Town told the reporter that according to the plan, 581 households in two villages around the smelting company need to be relocated. In the original plan, they are to be moved within 3 years since 2006. However, due to the plan adjustment of Changqing’s industrial district and some other reasons, only 156 households that had been originally demolished relocated, the rest 425 households were not able to move. At the moment, the relevant departments of Fengxiang County are actively planning and preparing to move these 425 village households out of the ‘dangerous zone’ within the next two years. Apparently, such large-scale relocation not only asks for a very good plan and large amount of funds. It will also need to seriously tackle the masses’ thought that ‘it is difficult to leave’.
The belated relocation may soon remove the threat of contamination on the heads of the lead-affected villagers. But whether the physical injuries of the children and the psychological pains of the villagers can be healed still remains unknown.
The government said that it would find out whether the ‘culprit’ is the smelting company
The occurrence of the ‘blood poisoning incident’ caused panic among the masses in the three villages of Sunjia Nantou, Madaokou, and Gaojutou of Changqing Town, Fengxiang County. In response to this, the local government has quickly taken a series of approaches and actively reacted to. The local government has carried out authoritative tests on children’s blood lead; it has urgently detected suspicious contamination sources; it has widely publicised common knowledge on lead prevention; and it has immediately initiated the relocation plan of the villagers in the ‘unsafe zone’. These approaches are to minimize the impact of the blood poisoning incident on the masses. The local masses hope the government’s measures can be implemented one by one and can efficiently solve their difficulties. They hope the government can proactively respond to these difficulties without covering up.
Shaanxi Dongling Group Smelting Company is considered generally by the lead-affected villagers as the “culprit” of the ‘lead poisoning’ incident. The company’s chief manager Sun Hong said that before the Department of Environment releases the final test result, they can’t agree with the masses’ opinions. However, they think that they already show a clear attitude since this incident just happened. They will strive to cooperate with the government’s investigation and the media’s supervision. They will not cover up or hide anything. ‘If we are responsible for this, we would shoulder our responsibilities; if we are not responsible for this, we will also cooperate with the government to solve this matter’.
Together with the enterprise, Fengxiang County government has taken quick and efficient responses to the ‘lead poisoning’ incident. On 7 August, at the press conference in Changqing town, the Fengxiang County government announced that among the 239 children whose blood samples had tested in Baoji City Hospital and Fengxiang County Hospital, 138 of them were suspected of excessive blood lead. In the meantime, the Fengxiang County government established a news centre for interviews.
On 11 August, Fengxiang county held another news press conference and declared five principles to solve the ‘lead poisoning’ incident. They insist on relying on the authoritative organisation to verify and confirm the test result; they insist that the government should cover the medical fees for verification of all relevant children’s blood lead; they insist on being open and fair and announcing the verification result in the first time; they insist on people-oriented principles and offering free in-time and efficient treatment to all the children having verified to have excessive blood lead; they insist on thinking forward, making plans and progressing the relocation-related work.
He Hongnian, the standing committee member and deputy county mayor of Fengxiang county said: ‘after the suspicious lead poisoning incident happened, county leaders took it seriously and stated clearly that the government should proactively respond to the problem, should not cover up and hide any facts and avoid contradictions. The government should be highly responsible to the masses and should rather believe than doubt. The government should solve problems by seeking truth from facts and should clear up the masses’ doubts. ’
‘Test and treatment should be at all costs!’
‘There might be multiple reasons for lead contamination, but it is an existing fact that children’s health has been threatened. Before figuring out the contamination problems, the government should definitely take its responsibility for the children’s health.’ He Hongnian, the Fengxiang county standing committee member and deputy county mayor said so. To this end, the Fengxiang county government has allocated the first batch of 1 million RMB to pay for the general examination of blood lead and the medical treatment of the affected children.
Until now, a total of over 1000 children in 3 lead-affected villages in Fengxiang county have taken the blood sampling by Xi’an Central Hospital. Fengxiang county has formulated treatment plans and prepared for the treatment of children with excessive blood lead.
Personal sanitation and food investigation are also important approaches for lead drive treatment. On the visit to the schools, crossroads, and some other populated places of the three villages, the reporter found that the knowledge publicising materials such as Health Education Prescription on Prevention of Children’s Lead Poisoning Hazards and Health and Education Knowledge on Prevention of Children’s lead Poisoning are hung up in many places. Fengxiang county has also organised medical personals to set up health consultation points in the villages and publicise hyperplumbemia-related knowledge to the masses so as to lead the masses to acquire knowledge about high blood lead and take scientific measures to prevent it.
In the afternoon of the t11th, the Madaokou villager Ma Hongqiang received milk, cucumber, and kelp distributed by the Fenxiang county government to help his children Ma Tianrui remove lead through food. He said: ‘My child tested 149.9 ug/1 one month ago. I felt very worried. Now the government has distributed food to drive lead. This is well-considered. After the child has eaten up these, I will buy them again.’
On the 11th, nearly 1,000 servings of lead-drive food that the Fengxiang county government purchased were distributed to children of the lead-affected villages. Many villagers hope to receive the test results soon and get treated. The Gaojutou villager Wen Minmin ’s one-year-old daughter Yang Yihan had tested blood sampling at Baoji Maternity and Child Health Care Hospital previously. Wen Minminsaid anxiously: “Whether my child’s blood lead is excessive and whether she would need treatment or not are the prime issues. I want to know my child’s test results soon and now. Only then I can be reassured.’
‘We will only be reassured if we relocate as soon as possible.’
To move the masses out of the “potentially-contaminated area” is essential for them to be completely free from the threats of lead. In the early morning of 12 August, Fengxiang county party secretary He Cungui hosted an on-site working conference to again focus on studying the relocation issue of the nearby masses of the Dongling Group Smelting Company. He Cungui made clear arrangements for the problems such as land expropriation, roads, housing structure, water, electricity, and children’s schooling in the relocation area.
He Cungui said that to speed up, the county asks for the design and plan of water, electricity, roads, and buildings of the relocation areas to be completed by 14 August, and the new location’s land use and children’s schooling plan to be completed by 20 August. According to the planning, the relocation should be completed within two years.
The Sunjia Nantou villager Chao Mingrui said: ‘In terms of the relocation problem, the village is now asking for the masses’ opinions. Most people think that now we live too near to the smelting company. We will only be reassured once we move to other places. What worries us is that after moving, we will have to walk several miles to cultivate the land. This is very inconvenient. We also don’t know whether the new location will be free from contamination. We hope these problems can be solved during relocation.’
Before the relocation, some practical difficulties of the villagers in the three lead-affected villages need to be paid attention to. MaDaokou villager Wang Yabing said: ‘We won’t be able to move immediately even though we eventually decide to move. The school will open on the 28th. The school is so near to the smelting company and people don’t dare to let the children go there. Where to send our children to school is a problem. Many people in the villagers have prepared to send children to schools in other villages, but I don’t know what to do yet.”