Chinese workers protest lead poisoning

June 14, 2011

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 sickened 500 adults and more than 100 children.

“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 micrograms per deciliter, he says — more than 10 times the level considered poisonous for adults by U.S. health standards, but judged only “moderately elevated” under Chinese rules.

The Yangxunqiao protests follow a wave of unrest that has swept across China in recent weeks, 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 increase growth and tax revenues. In an unusual step reflecting the severity of the outbreak, officials in Hangzhou, the provincial capital, have met with foil workers’ representatives and promised to pay compensation.

For centuries, Yangxunqiao has been a center 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 that lead was recently added to the foil mixture and that their families are also vulnerable, because 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,” said Jiang, a worker from Anhui province, as he explained why dozens of men from his village came to work in the factories. The salaries were also a draw: Foil workers can earn $308 to $617 a month, depending on their output.

But 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 U.S. Centers for Disease Control. “She’s not yet 4 years old,” he said, gazing at the crumpled sheet.

After blood tests confirmed high levels of lead in a number of families, they organized into groups by home province and appointed “worker representatives.”

An initial demonstration in Yangxunqiao on June 7 prompted the government to make an offer: $309 for workers with lead levels above 600 micrograms per deciliter; $139 for workers with lead levels of 400 to 600; and $232 for each poisoned child.

Unsatisfied, workers planned to meet Monday at dawn to take their petition to Hangzhou, according to several protesters. But at 2 a.m., local officials visited the workers’ representatives in their homes, offering them envelopes of cash and persuading a few not to continue. When the workers gathered to travel to Hangzhou, they were confronted by several hundred riot police who stopped them from boarding buses. Those who did get through — 400 workers out of an original group of more than 1,000 — met with 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,” one worker said.

— Financial Times

Gwen Chen contributed to this report.

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