A lead-contaminated Chinese town is using free milk to hide the evidence

A two-year-old girl in Dapu with lead levels almost three times the national limit.
A two-year-old girl in Dapu with lead levels almost three times the national limit.
Image: Reuters/Alex Harney
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Officials in a small township in Hunan province are dealing with a mass lead poisoning problem by offering parents milk in exchange for the test results showing their children’s hazardously high levels of lead—an attempt to cover up the crisis that is a worrying echo of recent health scandals.

As we’ve reported, hundreds of children in Dapu, a township of some 62,000 people and home to chemical plants and metal smelters, suffer from lead levels several times what the government deems safe. According to Reuters, local officials have been offering the parents of these children milk, with the promise it will flush out the lead, if families turn over the original copies of their kid’s medical records. (Some doctors say calcium-rich foods like milk help prevent lead poisoning, but milk is not proven to lower levels of lead once it’s in the blood.)

Dapu’s cover-up is reminiscent of how officials withheld details of a SARS outbreak in 2003, allowed contaminated milk power to kill six children and sicken hundreds of thousands in 2008, and took years to admit that a rural blood donation program in the 1990s had left thousands of villagers with HIV. It doesn’t help that the mayor of the township initially blamed the lead poisoning on students chewing pencils, which are made of graphite.

According to the report, eight locals said they were offered milk in exchange for the documents and one member of a local residents committee said that milk was being given to children with high levels of lead. The effects of high levels of lead in children range from death to stunted mental and physical development.

Moreover, Dapu is only one of several recent cases of large-scale lead poisoning in China. At least 850 children in Shaanxi province living near lead and zinc smelters suffered lead poisoning in 2009, the same year that over 1,000 children in 10 villages in Henan tested positive for lead poisoning.