Metals Processing Causes String of Environmental Disasters in China

The cost of economic development comes at a high price in China, at least in human terms. State media channels have traditionally suppressed reports of environmental disasters and the civil unrest that frequently follows but increasingly these reports are coming out as the number of news channels proliferates.
The most recent are two cases of lead poisoning effecting literally hundreds of children. The first was at the Dongling Lead & Zinc Smelting Company in Shaanxi Province in northeast China where 851 children have tested positive for lead poisoning in early August. More than 170 have since been hospitalized. The second was at the Wugang Fine Processed Manganese Smelting factory at Wenping in south-eastern Hunan province where 1354 children were found to have elevated levels of lead and are now going for further testing.
The problem is it is cheap to pollute – the costs remain low and government enforcement of standards is weak it will continue. Wages in many of these rural provinces are just $2.60 per day, compensating a family of five for lead poisoning for example costs just $732 ” if they can prove your factory is responsible.  If you pollute the local water supply to the point where you make 4,000 people vomit it costs just $7 per household, as residents of Chifeng a mining city in Inner Mongolia know only too well. More than 4300 residents fell sick with diarrhea, vomiting and fever. The contamination was traced to an overflow of sewage following heavy rains into the well providing the town’s drinking water. An understandable accident you may say, the city authorities knew about it for 2 days without telling anyone. The state owned local water supply company compensated each household $7.30.

Meanwhile in Liuyang City in Hunan, pollution has already killed five people and poisoned another 500 with toxic cadmium and indium from a local factory. About a thousand villagers rioted to demand medical check ups. When the results were revealed it showed abnormally high levels of cadmium and indium in a fifth of the 2833 residents tested. In July those that died were sent for autopsy and results showed massive amounts of indium. Indium and cadmium are highly toxic causing damage to the heart, kidneys and liver. China is the world’s biggest producer of indium contributing over 40% of the global supply according to Forbes, much of it loosely regulated and in this case being produced without permits. The World Bank says 59% of the water in China’s seven major rivers is unfit to drink, and the government says the air in about a quarter of cities is unhealthy.

Is there a solution to this? Yes greater government control, more efficiently enforced standards, stamping out of corruption that allows plants to ignore safety procedures and on occasion even produce metals without permits. Meanwhile China increasingly pays the price in deteriorating environmental conditions and runs the risk of turning an industrial miracle into an environmental disaster.

–Stuart Burns

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