By Leslie Hook in Yangxunqiao
Published: June 14 2011 Financial Times
At the foil factories of Zhanwang village, the pounding that usually echoes through the air as workers hammer metal sheets has fallen silent. “We’ve all refused to go to work since June 5,” says one Sichuanese worker. “If we keep working here, we will die here.”
He is one of thousands of workers in the eastern Chinese city of Yangxunqiao who have protested over the past week to demand compensation after an outbreak of lead poisoning, which state media say has left 500 adults and more than 100 children unwell.
“We’re waiting to see what the government will do to resolve this situation and then we will leave this place,” the worker says. The lead in his blood is above 400 microgrammes A decilitre, he says – more than 10 times the level considered poisonous for adults by US health standards but judged only “moderately elevated” under Chinese rules.
The Yangxunqiao protests follow unrest that has swept across China, blamed on everything from rising prices and land sales to overzealous officials.
China, the world’s largest producer and consumer of lead, has repeatedly vowed to stamp out pollution from heavy metals. Its failure to do so is partly due to the difficulty of controlling pollution at a local level, where officials are often given incentives to prioritise growth and tax revenues. In an unusual step, reflecting the severity of the outbreak, officials in Hangzhou, the provincial capital, have met foil workers’ representatives and promised to pay compensation.
For centuries, Yangxunqiao has been a centre for manufacturing the foil papers used in Chinese funeral rites. Today, more than 2,500 mainly migrant workers make the shiny “ingots”, often unprotected by gloves or masks, in tiny workshops. Workers say lead was recently added to the foil mixture and their families are also vulnerable as they usually live right next to the workshops.
Lead poisoning, which can damage the nervous system, brain and kidneys, is particularly toxic in children, who absorb the metal more easily than adults.
“For us farmers, we think that if you are working inside it is more comfortable than working outside in the field,” says Mr Jiang, a worker from Anhui province, as he explains why dozens of men from his village came to work in the factories. The salaries were also a draw: foil workers can earn Rmb2,000 to Rmb4,000 ($308 to $617) a month depending on their output.
But Mr Jiang’s family has paid a heavy price. He pulls a slip of paper from his pocket that bears his daughter’s hospital test results.
The level of lead in her blood is more than 30 times the safe threshold for children according to the US Center for Disease Control. “She’s not yet four years old,” he says, gazing at the crumpled sheet.
After blood tests confirmed high levels of lead in a number of families, they organised into groups by home province and appointed “worker representatives”.
An initial demonstration in Yangxunqiao on June 7 prompted the government to make an offer: Rmb2,000 for workers with lead levels above 600 mg/dl; Rmb900 for workers with lead levels of 400 to 600 mg/dl; and Rmb1,500 for each poisoned child.
Unsatisfied, workers planned to meet on Monday at dawn to take their petition to Hangzhou, according to several protesters. But at 2am, local officials visited the workers’ representatives in their homes, offering them envelopes of cash and convincing a few not to continue. When the workers gathered to travel to Hangzhou, they were confronted by several hundred riot police who stopped them boarding buses. Those who did get through – 400 workers out of an original group of more than 1,000 – decided to continue on foot, walking 6km to a nearby town and eventually catching buses to Hangzhou. They met officials at the petitioners office. The government did not raise its compensation offer but promised free health checks and a detailed treatment plan.
“We just want to be normal and healthy again,” says one worker.
Chen Mingzheng, a government official who met the protesters, said: “The government’s position is that the companies should be paying this compensation. However because we are here to serve the people, the government has decided to take responsibility for this and resolve it.”
Environment minister Zhou Shengxian told state media in February: “Heavy metals pollution control will be the cardinal task in environmental protection.”