Abstract – Lead poisoning in China: A health and human rights crisis

Jane E. Cohen and Joseph  J. Amon

Health and Human rights 14/2

Published December 2012


Acute and chronic lead poisoning is occurring throughout China and is a major cause of childhood morbidity. The Chinese government’s emphasis on industrial development and poverty reduction has, over the past three decades, decreased by 500 million the number of people surviving on less than one dollar per day, but has caused significant environmental degradation that threatens public health. Drawing upon in-depth interviews conducted in 2009 and 2010 with families affected by lead poisoning, environmental activists, journalists, government and civil society organization officials in Shaanxi, Henan, Hunan, and Yunnan provinces, as well as a review of scientific and Chinese media, and health and environmental legal and policy analysis, we examine the intersection of civil, political, economic, and social rights related to access to information, screening, treatment, and remediation related to lead poisoning. In-depth interviews in each province uncovered: censorship and intimidation of journalists, environmental activists, and parents seeking information about sources and prevention of lead poisoning; denial of screening for lead poisoning, often based upon arbitrary eligibility criteria; and inadequate and inappropriate treatment being promoted and provided by health facilities. Over the past decade, the Chinese government has prioritized health care and invested billions of dollars towards universal health coverage, and strengthened environmental to address industrial pollution and guarantee access to information on the environment. Yet, despite these reforms, information remains constrained and citizens seeking information and redress are sometimes arrested, in violation of Chinese and international law. Local government officials and national environmental policies continue to prioritize economic development over environmental protection. To effectively address lead poisoning requires an emphasis on prevention, and to combat industrial pollution requires stronger enforcement of existing laws and regulations, as well as accountability of local authorities charged with upholding environmental regulations. In this context, restrictions on such rights as freedom of expression, assembly, and political participation have direct consequences on the realization of the right to health.