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    Four Years On, Company Agrees to Pay Lead Poisoning Victims

    The families’ victory after a lengthy legal battle could set a precedent for people fighting against polluting plants, lawyer says.

    After four years of trials and appeals, seven families in central China’s Hunan province have agreed to a settlement with a chemical company involved in a lead poisoning case, financial news outlet Jiemian reported Tuesday.

    The seven are among 13 families in the city of Hengyang who sought damages for adverse health effects after being exposed to lead in 2014. In June of that year, Sixth Tone’s sister publication The Paper revealed that over 300 children in Hengdong, a county administered by Hengyang, exhibited lethargy, loss of appetite, and other signs of lead poisoning, and that the symptoms were linked to heavy metal contamination from a nearby chemical plant. A follow-up investigation by state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) later found that Meilun Chemical Materials — a factory located just 200 meters from a residential area — was emitting 60 times more lead than permitted by national pollution standards.

    Following the CCTV investigation, the Ministry of Environmental Protection shut the plant for not installing an exhaust purification system and held four local officials, including the county chief, accountable for negligence. While the authorities were quick to take action against the polluters, the families affected by lead exposure became tangled in bureaucracy as they sought compensation.

    The 53 families first filed a collective lawsuit against Meilun Chemical Materials in December 2014, six months after the plant was shut — but 40 of them withdrew their cases under pressure from the local government, according to The Paper. The holdouts’ hopes were further dashed in August 2015 when the Hengdong County People’s Court ruled that the company only had to compensate two families, rejecting the claims of 11 others. The court said the denied victims’ lead levels did not constitute “minor lead poisoning” as defined by the Ministry of Health.

    The following year, the company and the 13 families appealed , but the Hengyang Intermediate People’s Court upheld the original verdict. Seven families, however, appealed to the Hunan High People’s Court, which ordered a retrial. Last Wednesday, the families agreed to a settlement with the company that provides for compensation ranging from 40,000 to 90,000 yuan ($5,800 to $13,100) per family.

    Dai Renhui, a lawyer from Beijing Huanzhu Law Firm who represented the families, told Jiemian that one of the major difficulties in such cases is determining the severity of the health problems. Legal documents from the Hengyang Intermediate People’s Court also noted a shortage of professional institutes for assessing the health effects of industrial contamination.

    The cases have been further complicated by China’s standard for measuring blood lead concentration in children, which differs from the standard set by the World Health Organization. According to the global health authority, there is no safe blood lead level where children are concerned. Even a concentration as low as 50 micrograms per liter may result in decreased intelligence, behavioral difficulties, and learning problems, says the WHO.

    Wang Hongmei, a researcher at the Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences, found during a 2018 study that the Chinese government — not the company that pollutes — tends to shoulder more responsibility when it comes to compensating victims. In countries like Japan and the United States, however, the polluters are generally held accountable. “Although environmental protection laws have principles and guidelines, there is no detailed information on how to build a system for compensating health damage,” Wang wrote.

    The Chinese government is taking steps to address this accountability problem. Last year, the Ministry of Environmental Protection and the China Insurance Regulatory Commission released a draft regulation about environmental liability insurance, but that proposal focused more on payments pertaining to environmental damage rather than to affected individuals. Still, Dai the lawyer sees the recent mediation as a positive sign.

    “As the first lead poisoning case involving children to go through the entire legal process and receive, at last, a court settlement, this is a matter of great significance,” he said.

    Editor: Bibek Bhandari.

    (Header image: A child with lead poisoning is treated with an IV drip at a hospital in Chenzhou, Hunan province, March 21, 2010. VCG)