Over 300 Children Poisoned by Lead, Town’s Mayor Makes Light of It

June 17, 2014 Updated: June 18, 2014

More than 300 children in China’s Hunan Province have been diagnosed with lead poisoning, with chemical pollution from a factory being the suspected source. The town’s mayor blames the poisoning on children biting on their pencils while studying in school, which triggered an angry outcry from netizens.

The children in Dapu Town, Hengdong County of Hunan Province were found with blood lead levels exceeding the health standard of 100 micrograms per liter, some of them had blood lead level as high as 322 micrograms per liter.

The Meilun Chemical plant, which produces electrolytic zinc, gives off foul-smelling fumes. Dust and waste-water are not being treated effectively and are directly discharged into nearby Xiangjiang River, local people told Jinghua Times, a mainland Chinese media.

According to the townspeople, an analysis of the poisoned children shows that the closer they live to the plant, the higher the children’s blood lead level is.

Authorities’ Response

Xiao Fenglan, director of Hengdong County Environmental Protection Bureau, responded to media enquiry on the lead poisoning, saying, “We cannot confirm whether the factory is the sole source [of the lead], we are not qualified [to affirm].”

The Mayor of Dapu Town made this public statement: “When children study at school, they chew on pencils while using them, which could also lead to excessive lead in their blood.”

The remarks triggered angry responses from Chinese netizens who condemned the officials for shirking responsibility and being shameless. Following are a few selected quotes.

“It is shameless for them to speak like this. Do people like this deserve to be officials?”

“Whenever there is a problem, instead of investigating the facts, they always look for excuses to shirk responsibility. Such officials bring disaster to the country and people.”

“Official, let me give you a common-known fact: the main ingredients in a pencil core is graphite. Pencils are made from the mixture of graphite and clay, it has nothing to do with lead.”

“They don’t even have common sense. The main ingredient of a pencil core is graphite, not lead. Regardless of what went wrong, they just want to shirk responsibility. Even if you are trying to shirk responsibility, you should find a plausible excuse, [or else] become a laughingstock!”

“This official is just too smart. His logic is: A pencil [in Chinese, literally translated as ‘lead pen’], if it didn’t contain lead, it wouldn’t be called a ‘lead pen’; therefore, it must contain lead … “

“[They] rush to shirk responsibility without even determining the cause.”

China expert Ma Tieying told Hong Kong’s Now TV that, years ago Hunan Province had a problem of heavy metal contaminated rice, causing 11 children to become sick. This time it involves the sickening of more than 300 children, yet a local official claims the children were chewing on their pencils.

In recent years, media have exposed many cases of Chinese children being poisoned by lead in places such as Ji’an City in Jiangxi Province, Fengxiang in Shaanxi Province, Wugang in Hunan Province, Kunming in Yunnan Province, Shanghang County in Longyan City, and Chenzhou City in Hunan Province.

Lead, even in small amounts, can cause serious health problems, according to a Mayo Clinic report. Children are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning, which can severely affect mental and physical development. Asymptomatic lead poisoning can permanently damage children’s brains.

Translated by Quincy Yu. With editing by Gisela Sommer.