KARDZHALI, BULGARIA -- Blood tests conducted on a random sample of children in this southeastern milltown of 60,000 indicate that Luben Shiboikov, age 6, carries a higher concentration of lead in his body than any child in town. His last test showed 2 1/2 times more lead than is considered safe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Western research suggests a high probability that Luben's exposure to lead is stunting his growth and impairing his ability to learn. Children with lead levels as high as his are six times more likely than non-exposed children to have trouble reading and seven times more likely not to finish school.

According to the test sample, 20 percent of the 18,000 children in and around the town have lead levels considered unsafe by Bulgarian standards. By U.S. standards -- which have changed recently on the basis of new findings about the debilitating effects of the heavy metal -- the tests indicate that all the children of Kardzhali have a dangerously high concentration of lead in their bodies.

If Luben Shiboikov lived in the United States, he probably would be hospitalized and given medication. American doctors say they also would call in specialists from Atlanta's Centers for Disease Control to locate and take measures against the source of the metal.

But the boy is growing up in Bulgaria. Instead of closing down the source of the lead pollution, the government is making plans to keep it open for five more years. The Ministry of Industry says the state-owned Georgi Dimitrov Lead and Zinc Complex is vital to the country's key hard-currency earner, the state-owned forklift industry.

Luben Shiboikov, and every other child in this town, in effect, is being poisoned to save the forklifts.

In Bulgaria, as in most of Eastern Europe over the past year, a democratic revolution has toppled a dictator, forced elections and opened the free flow of information. But the reliance on heavy-metal socialism grinds on, deepening a decades-old environmental catastrophe and endangering lives.

The problem is hardly unique to Bulgaria. The Czechoslovak government continues to depend on electricity produced at accident-prone, Soviet-designed nuclear power plants. Hungary is among the world's most inefficient users of fossil fuel. Poland plans to issue gas masks to protect citizens from industrial plants that continue to belch heavy metals and sulphur dioxide.

Promises to improve the environment were staples of all the East European political campaigns this year as the nations of the region rushed through their first free elections in four decades. But for a variety of reasons, including huge foreign debts, bureaucratic inertia and a lack of time and affordable alternatives, environmental reform policy has been slow to emerge.

"We have very little time for environmental work," said Petar Beron, a longtime environmental activist who is now an opposition leader in Bulgaria's new National Assembly. "We are involved in urgent political matters. After settling all these crises, we will get back to ecology."

To understand how and why the post-Communist clean-up of Eastern Europe is stalling, a good starting point is the unsafe level of lead that seems likely to percolate inside Luben Shiboikov for the five more years the forklift factory is expected to continue operating.

Spring rains here in Kardzhali often kill the flowers. Soil tests show concentrations of lead and cadmium that are 300 to 400 times higher than maximum levels for safety. Few residents risk raising their own vegetables.

The rate of birth defects and stillbirths in the region is well above the national average. Schools send children out of town for at least one month a year. A doctor who heads the clinical laboratory at Kardzhali hospital says "almost all" of the 18,000 children in and near this town are anemic because of exposure to heavy-metal pollution.

"We notice lack of appetite, decreased resistance to colds and pneumonia. I observe a bizarre pigmentation of the skin that is not seen elsewhere. There is also a tiredness that is not only for the children. We all find it hard to get up and go to work," said Gergana Gogova, a physician who was born and raised in Kardzhali.

The lead plant here was completed in 1956, using Soviet technology from the 1940s. Technocrats at Bulgaria's Ministry of Industry concede that the plant is outmoded and that it emits far higher levels of lead and cadmium than modern nonferrous-metal processing plants in Western Europe.

According to the chief environmental engineer at the plant, Dimiter Raev, the government systematically concealed, glossed over and lied about pollution and health problems at the plant.

"The information was available only to the Communist Party boss," Raev said.

The lid on information was lifted late last year with the palace coup that toppled Communist dictator Todor Zhivkov. Reformers in Sofia appointed a new minister of health who later canceled regulations that had made it a crime to publish scientific findings about industrial pollution.

The blood tests conducted this spring on local children were the first in the town's history, and results showed evidence of a population-wide exposure to lead.

Armed for the first time with hard information, angry parents in Kardzhali began protesting. More than 5,000 signed a petition demanding that the lead plant be closed. Petitions were followed by demonstrations in front of the plant. The new minister of health has twice traveled from Sofia, the capital, to speak to the parents.

"They are trying all the time to calm us down," said Steffka Stoyanova, 38, a mother of two children whose blood tests show unsafe levels of lead. She is the leader of a group called Mothers Against Pollution. "The officials say they know the problem. But at the same time they don't do anything. I don't see how anybody can do anything."

At the Ministry of Industry in Sofia, the director in charge of environmental problems, Vladimir Genevski, said new pollution filters will be in place in the plant by next year and that he can personally guarantee that lead in the atmosphere will decline to safe levels.

Here in Kardzhali, the plant's own chief environmental engineer does not believe that guarantee. Raev said nothing has changed in the highly centralized way in which decisions are made in the state-owned lead and zinc industry. He said nearly all revenues from the plant are siphoned away from Kardzhali by the government. Plant managers here, he said, are not allowed to use profits to buy high quality, foreign-made, pollution-control devices.

"The centralized way of organizing production still exists in Bulgaria," Raev said. "We don't need filters now. We need a whole new technology. If we had had another technology, we wouldn't have had this pollution."

It is difficult to overstate the environmental crisis in this Balkan country of 9 million people. A government publication called "Ecology and Management" said last year that 85 percent of river water is polluted with industrial wastes. It said also that about one-quarter of the country is enveloped in air that is polluted beyond what the government describes as "highest admissible norms." Nearly 70 percent of farmland has been damaged by industrial pollutants, and about 8 percent of that land is considered unfit for farm use for up to 50 years.

Government research, kept secret for years but now beginning to circulate, shows that Bulgarians living near heavy industrial plants have abnormally high rates of asthma, bronchitis, skin disease, eye infections, nervous system disorders, brain hemorrhages, heart attacks and cancer.

"According to our primitive statistics, when we say abnormally high rates, we mean five or six times the frequency one would normally expect," said Dr. Nikolai Veltchev, a surgeon and environmental activist from the copper-smelting town of Srednogoria.

The prime minister of Bulgaria presented a crisis plan in March to combat industrial pollution. The five-year cost of implementing the plan is about $1.2 billion. Western diplomats said the plan is a good one except for one glaring problem:

"They cannot afford it. The last thing the government will be able to do, in a full-scale way, is to take action against pollution," said a Western economic expert in Sofia.

All the democratizing countries of Eastern Europe are hard-pressed, but Bulgaria's economic woes are unremittingly bleak.

The problems begin with $10.2 billion in foreign debt -- the result of the Communist government's heavy borrowing for industrial expansion in the 1980s. A senior Bulgarian trade official describes that policy as "gigantomania."

"While all the world created smaller, more energy-efficient and less polluting factories, Zhivkov decided that we would go the other way," said Atanas Paparisov, head of the Western trade department in the Ministry of Foreign Trade. "Farming was neglected for gigantomania. We began importing food. The debt came from subsidizing a centralized industrial system that consumed a lot of energy and depended on imports of raw materials and technical components."

Bulgaria exported about 80 percent of its goods, many of which are of outmoded design and shoddy quality, to other East Bloc countries. But the breakup of the East Bloc's trading community means that most of those countries, including the Soviet Union, are starting to buy with hard currency. Given German and Japanese competition, economists say it is highly unlikely that any of the Eastern countries will continue to buy Bulgarian.

This year alone, industrial production shrank by 10 percent. In the same period, hard currency reserves have collapsed from $1 billion in January to less than $200 million. A sudden cutback in subsidized oil from the Soviet Union stopped Bulgaria from refining cheap Soviet crude and reselling it at world prices. Those easy profits, now apparently gone forever, accounted for 40 percent of the country's hard-currency earnings, economists say.

All this circles back to Luben Shiboikov and the forklifts.

Forklifts traditionally have been -- and remain -- a shining star in Bulgaria's grim industrial firmament. Bulgaria is among the world's leaders in exporting forklifts of competitive quality and highly competitive prices. Forklifts continue to be one of the very few Bulgarian products that earn the hard currency for which the Socialist-controlled government is growing desperate.

Among the essential ingredients in Bulgarian forklifts is lots of lead.

According to Ivan Kostov, an opposition member of parliament who has taken a passionate interest in forklifts and lead poisoning, the Ministry of Industry keeps the prestigious forklift industry healthy by supplying it with state-produced lead and zinc at subsidized prices.

"They assign these prices to lead and zinc, about one-quarter world prices, so that the forklifts make a profit," said Kostov.

That practice, Kostov says, helps the Ministry of Industry perpetuate its highly centralized, top-down structure as it boasts about how it is running an industry that competes in the world market.

"That is why they do not want to close the lead plants," Kostov said.

At the Ministry of Industry, Deputy Minister Jordan Tenov acknowledged that state-produced lead continues to be sold to the forklift industry at bargain prices. Tenov said this policy will change as "the forklift manufacturers change their technology."

Docho Dochev, a physician in charge of the clinical laboratory at Bulgaria's best medical school, tested Luben Shiboikov's blood. When he saw the results -- 360 micrograms of lead per liter -- he recommended that the boy "be evacuated to a clean region for a month to purify his blood."

That was in May. Nearly three months later, Luben's father had not gotten the message.

"Nobody has called me to tell me what I should do with my child," said Boris Shiboikov, who himself works in the lead plant.

"My wife and I have been calling Sofia to find out what to do. My wife telephoned a government doctor in Sofia and was told that it was not dangerous. The doctor told my wife that in Plovdiv, a nearby town with a lead plant, the children have 500 micrograms of lead in their blood, and they are still alive."

Having heard nothing from state doctors, Shiboikov treats Luben himself.

He gives him apple juice and a pill called Pectin, which he receives at the plant. He has heard that the juice and the pill help get lead out of the body.

The father says he has one other hope for Luben.

"We hope that his blood tests were wrong," Shiboikov said.