Test reports of lead levels of families in Kanghua New Village are shown Thursday, Sept. 15, 2011 in Shanghai, China. Families living in one of Shanghai's many industrial suburbs say their children are suffering from lead poisoning from nearby factories and recycling facilities. The source of the lead contamination was not immediately clear, but the village is located just north of the factory zone, amid corn and vegetable fields and older rural housing, and beside chemical, battery and electronics equipment factories. 

(AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)

Four years after suing a local chemical company for exposing their children to dangerous levels of lead, seven families in the town of Hengdong in China’s Hunan province reached a settlement.

The company, Meilun Chemical Materials, agreed to pay compensation ranging from 40,000 to 90,000 yuan (US$5,800 to $13,100) to each family. It is the first lead poisoning case in China to go through trials and appeals before reaching a settlement.

“We have walked such a long way, endured so much pain. Just to get this compensation for the children, it was so hard,” the grandmother of a victim told the state media.

A lawyer for the plaintiffs, Dai Renhui, said the settlement, agreed to in September, was “a matter of great significance,” though many people on social media criticized the compensation as paltry “for ruining a child’s health for life.”

In June 2014, state media reported that more than 300 children in Hengdong had elevated blood lead levels. Initially, 53 of the affected families filed a class action lawsuit against the company. Most of them dropped out of the proceedings after local authorities repeatedly harassed them, including threatening to take away their social security benefits or fire any relatives who worked for the government.

In the early 2000s, numerous mass lead poisoning incidents were reported across China. In a 2011 report, Human Rights Watch documented authorities’ systematic violations of the affected children’s right to health, including restricting access to lead testing, denying them treatment, and intimidating and harassing family members and journalists seeking information about the problem.

In the past decade, more environmental regulations have been introduced, but China still has no established mechanism to evaluate environmental-related health impacts, nor laws or regulations on pollution liability and compensation. As a result, it is hard for victims to prove a link between pollution and their health issues and to claim proper compensation. The lack of independence of the courts in China often means short-term economic concerns of local governments take precedence over environmental issues.

President Xi Jinping has vowed to lead the world in fighting climate change and claimed that environmental protection is a top priority of his government. The first steps the government should take include ending harassment of—and ensuring justice for—victims of environmental pollution.