DAPU, China — After a test showed farmer Zhao Heping’s toddler grandson had high levels of lead in his blood two years ago, local officials in China’s Hunan Province offered the child medicine, he says—and milk. In return, Zhao says, officials asked that he hand over his grandson’s blood test results.
Zhao was not alone. Eight residents of Dapu, a rural town of about 62,000 dotted with smelters and chemical plants, say families of children diagnosed with lead exposure were offered milk, but only if they surrendered their test results. The milk, residents recall officials saying, would flush the lead out of the children’s bodies.
“I still give my grandsons milk, but it’s useless,” said Mao Baozhu, 61, a local resident who says her three grandchildren have all been diagnosed with high lead levels. “Isn’t the residents committee just trying to deceive us by distributing milk and saying all the kids have to do is drink it and they’ll be cured?”
Allegations by villagers of the crude attempts by local officials to cover up the health effects of the environmental damage in Dapu by offering milk for medical records underscores the challenges China faces in waging the “war on pollution” premier Li Keqiang announced in March.
Environmental pollution is increasingly a source of social unrest in China. In agricultural areas like Dapu, air, soil and water pollution from local factories can deprive farmers of their livelihoods and rob them of their health. Cancer rates in some polluted villages are so high that they are known as “cancer villages.”
The belief that milk can treat lead poisoning is widespread in China. The National Health and Family Planning Commission recommends “nutritional intervention” for children exposed to lead because they may have nutritional deficiencies, among other treatments.
Better nutrition does not lower lead levels, though, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It recommends eliminating the source of pollution and, in extreme cases, treatment to remove heavy metals from the body.
In response to questions from Reuters, the National Health and Family Planning Commission reiterated its nutritional guidance and noted that dairy and bean products could be offered to children suffering from lead exposure.
But it added that its guidelines went well beyond nutrition, and it was neither “complete nor correct” to say that milk flushed lead out of the body. It also recommended removing the source of lead pollution and medical treatment in severe cases.
A spokeswoman for the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CCDC) said it was not involved in the investigation in Dapu and could not comment. She directed inquiries to local health authorities in Hunan. Local health authorities declined interview requests. One official at a regional information office said she had never heard of anyone distributing milk and collecting blood test results.
Slap in the Face
Milk has a complicated history in China. In 2008, six children died and hundreds of thousands became sick after milk producers added the chemical melamine to milk powder. Six years on, parents who can afford to still buy imported infant formula, and foreign-made milk is popular in Chinese cities.
There is no evidence to suggest officials did not believe that milk was an effective treatment for excessive lead levels, but several villagers in Dapu said they thought it was just a tactic to pacify the public. “They slap you on the face, then they give you candy. That’s how the government operates,” said Li Wanming, a resident whose grandchildren had elevated blood lead levels.
Lead poisoning is among the most serious, if least visible, side effects of China’s rapid economic growth. Exposure to lead is particularly dangerous for children: It inhibits intellectual and physical development, and can cause poor concentration, disruptive behavior, even death at high levels. Its effects are irreversible.
Local governments often organize medical tests and distribute medicine, vitamins or food in Chinese regions affected by heavy metal pollution, said Liu Jinmei, a lawyer at the Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims in Beijing. Often, local officials would not disclose the results of tests they had organized for villagers, she said.
“Mainly this is to prevent the villagers from learning the truth, or to prevent them from passing this information on to people outside the village,” Liu said.
In a 2011 report on lead poisoning in China, Human Rights Watch also documented how local hospitals in polluted areas withheld and, parents believe, manipulated or falsified test results.
There are no national data on lead levels in China. The Capital Institute of Pediatrics in Beijing, which conducted a survey in 15 cities between 2004 and 2008, found 7.6 percent of those surveyed had lead levels above 100 micrograms per liter (ug/L), China’s threshold for safe lead exposure.
Dapu’s lead problem made national headlines in June in an exposé by state broadcaster CCTV, in which the mayor was shown saying children might have raised their own blood levels by chewing on pencils. After the broadcast, which claimed that more than 300 children had high lead levels, officials opened an investigation and Meilun, a local chemical plant and smelter, was forced to stop production.
Bao Zhu, a member of the local residents’ committee—typically the lowest level of local government—confirmed the distribution of milk to children with elevated lead levels, but refused to answer any more questions.
A woman at the Hengdong information office who would only give her surname, Tan, said the county was only now testing children for lead exposure so it was impossible to say how many children had been exposed. She said she had not heard of anyone distributing milk and collecting test results.
Growth vs. Health
Hunan has significant deposits of lead, zinc, mercury, antimony and tungsten but is also the country’s largest producer of rice. In 2003, Dapu officials set up an industrial zone which, by 2013, had expanded to include at least 12 smelting factories producing tungsten, copper, lead and zinc.
An April study of the area by environmental advocacy group Greenpeace found high levels of cadmium and lead in local rice samples, some as much as 22 times the national standard.
“The water and soil here are ruined. We don’t farm anymore,” said Li Wanming.
Residents said they brought their concerns about lead pollution to local officials, submitting a petition in late 2012. They said milk had been distributed by the residents’ committee or the local branch of the CCDC to people with excessive lead blood levels three times since 2012, most recently in June.
Only residents who turned in their blood test results received milk and only those that provided the originals—rather than a copy—would be reimbursed for costs of the tests, said Mao Baozhu, the grandmother of three sick children.
Many handed in their test results in order to be reimbursed and get the free milk, residents said. When asked, two said they had not considered consulting a lawyer because they couldn’t afford one. Mao said subsequent tests showed one of her grandson’s levels are down from three times the national limit for lead exposure in children to twice that level; another is often dizzy and complains of stomach pains.
Farmer Li Laiyin, 64, broke into tears describing his two grandchildren, who tested at nearly five times the Chinese national threshold for safe lead exposure two years ago. They are thin, with little appetite. They can’t sit still or sleep, or concentrate long enough to finish their homework. “I worry about their future. What if they develop more symptoms later?” he asked.
A version of this story appeared in the August 2014 print edition of The Irrawaddy magazine.