Bao Zhu, a member of the local residents' committee – typically the lowest level of local government – confirmed the distribution of milk to children with elevated lead levels, but refused to answer any more questions.
A woman at the Hengdong information office who would only give her surname, Tan, said the county was only now testing children for lead exposure so it was impossible to say how many children had been exposed. She said she had not heard of anyone distributing milk and collecting test results.
GROWTH VS HEALTH
Hunan has significant deposits of lead, zinc, mercury, antimony and tungsten but is also the country's largest producer of rice. In 2003, Dapu officials set up an industrial zone which, by 2013, had expanded to include at least 12 smelting factories producing tungsten, copper, lead and zinc.
An April study of the area by environmental advocacy group Greenpeace found high levels of cadmium and lead in local rice samples, some as much as 22 times the national standard.
"The water and soil here are ruined. We don't farm anymore," said Li Wanming.
Residents said they brought their concerns about lead pollution to local officials, submitting a petition in late 2012. They said milk had been distributed by the residents' committee or the local branch of the CCDC to people with excessive lead blood levels three times since 2012, most recently last month.
Only residents who turned in their blood test results received milk and only those that provided the originals – rather than a copy – would be reimbursed for cost of the tests, said Mao Baozhu, the grandmother of three sick children.
Many handed in their test results in order to be reimbursed and get the free milk, residents said. When asked, two said they had not considered consulting a lawyer because they couldn't afford one. Mao said subsequent tests showed one of her grandson's levels are down from three times the national limit for lead exposure in children to twice that level; another is often dizzy and complains of stomach pains.
Farmer Li Laiyin, 64, broke into tears describing his two grandchildren, who tested at nearly five times the Chinese national threshold for safe lead exposure two years ago. They are thin, with little appetite. They can’t sit still or sleep, or concentrate long enough to finish their homework. "I worry about their future. What if they develop more symptoms later?" he asked.