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(Hong Kong) - Chinese government officials in provinces with high rates of industrial pollution are restricting access to lead testing, withholding and falsifying test results, and denying children treatment, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Family members and journalists seeking information about the problem are intimidated and harassed, Human Rights Watch said. Such actions violate Chinese law and condemn hundreds of thousands of children to permanent mental and physical disabilities.

The 75-page report, "‘My Children Have Been Poisoned': A Public Health Crisis in Four Chinese Provinces," draws on research in heavily lead-contaminated villages in Henan, Yunnan, Shaanxi, and Hunan provinces. The report documents how, despite increasing regulation and sporadic enforcement targeting polluting factories, local authorities are ignoring the urgent and long-term health consequences of a generation of children continuously exposed to life-threatening levels of lead.

"Children with dangerously high levels of lead in their blood are being refused treatment and returned home to contaminated houses in polluted villages," said Joe Amon, health and human rights director at Human Rights Watch. "Parents, journalists, and community activists who dare to speak out about lead are detained, harassed, and ultimately silenced."

Over the past decade, numerous mass lead poisoning incidents have been reported across the country. In response, Environmental Protection Ministry officials have become more outspoken, directing local officials to increase supervision of factories and enforce existing environmental regulations. The ministry has also said that it will pursue criminal penalties for businesses and local officials who violate environmental restrictions.

However, these promises fall short of addressing the health consequences of lead poisoning and fulfilling the right to health for children exposed to lead, Human Rights Watch said. Authorities need to make sure that the immediate and long-term health care needs of people in contaminated villages are taken care of, and that the polluted areas are cleaned up.

"It's not enough to penalize factory owners and officials after a village is severely contaminated," Amon said. "The government needs to provide treatment and to make sure that children aren't immediately re-exposed to toxic levels of lead."

The report documents how local authorities in contaminated areas have imposed arbitrary limits on access to blood lead testing, for example by permitting only people living within a small radius of a factory to be tested. When tests are conducted, results have often been contradictory or have been withheld from victims and their families. And children with elevated blood lead levels who require treatment according to national guidelines have been denied care or told simply to eat certain foods, including apples, garlic, milk, and eggs.

Lead is highly toxic and can interrupt the body's neurological, biological, and cognitive functions. The ingestion of high levels of lead can cause brain, liver, kidney, nerve, and stomach damage as well as anemia, comas, convulsions, and even death. Children are particularly susceptible, and high levels of lead exposure can cause permanent intellectual and developmental disabilities, including reading and learning disabilities, behavioral problems, hearing loss, attention problems, and disruption in the development of visual and motor functioning.

The report details the experiences of dozens of parents whose children are suffering the acute and chronic effects of lead poisoning. One mother from Yunnan province said:

The doctor told us all the children in this village have lead poisoning. Then they told us a few months later that all the children are healthy. They wouldn't let us see the results from the tests though.

A grandmother in Shaanxi province is quoted in the report describing her attempts to get treatment for her grandson. She said:

The government gave us some garlic and told us to give our grandson extra garlic. We asked about medicine, something to make him better. They said they wouldn't give us any because medicine for lead poisoning doesn't work.

In recent years, the Chinese government has promoted a number of environmental regulations aimed at curbing widespread industrial pollution and protecting the environment and public health. However, enforcement has been uneven, and little has been done to reduce lead levels in villages that are already heavily contaminated. The failure to address the rights of the people in these villages to health care and a healthy environment places China at odds with its obligations under both the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Human Rights Watch identified a number of recommendations for responding to the lead poisoning crisis. The Health Ministry should ensure that scientifically sound methods are used to designate the area of risk for lead exposure and ensure that everyone in that area is offered free blood lead testing, Human Rights Watch said. Health authorities should also provide evidence-based medical treatment and case management for lead poisoning. The Environmental Protection Ministry should immediately test pollution levels around factories near residential areas, and revise environmental laws to ensure that factories that pose immediate danger to public health are shut down until they meet national emissions standards. The government needs to follow through on its commitment to prosecute officials and factory owners who fail to uphold environmental regulations, Human Rights Watch said.

"The Chinese government has begun to realize that the environmental cost of massive toxic pollution is unacceptable," Amon said. "Unfortunately, it has yet to address the health consequences for the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of children who face the dire consequences of the government's neglect."

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