By JOE McDONALD
China’s problems with lead in consumer products go far beyond tainted toys.
From playthings to paint to gasoline, Chinese companies use lead in a wide range of products and experts say China’s children are suffering the health consequences.
Beijing has prohibited leaded gasoline in recent years and has tightened standards for other goods. But enforcement is spotty, and lead is still so common that researchers say up to one-fifth of Chinese children tested had unsafe levels in their blood.
In comparison, about 310,000 U.S. children ages 1 to 5, or less than 2 percent of that population, have blood lead levels that require treatment or other measures, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most get it from paint chips and dust in deteriorating buildings — not recalled toys, U.S. health officials say.
“The (Chinese) central government many times has regulations in place, but given China’s size, a lot of things don’t get implemented at the local level,” said Jamie Choi, a campaigner in Beijing for the environmental group Greenpeace.
In China’s latest product safety incident, Mattel Inc. is recalling 18.2 million Chinese-made toys produced with lead paint. The world’s largest toy company said its supplier, Early Light Industrial Co., hired a subcontractor for painting that violated Mattel’s rules by using paint from an outside source instead of Early Light.
On Wednesday, managers at Early Light’s Hong Kong headquarters and its factory in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen did not respond to phone calls seeking comment.
An official of a trade group, the China National Light Industry Council, argued that responsibility for meeting foreign standards should not lie with Chinese manufacturers.
“The quality of Chinese-made toys with American brands should be the responsibility of the American brand owner, not the Chinese manufacturer,” said Zhang Yanfen, secretary of the council’s panel on toy standards.
Spokespeople for China’s Health Ministry and product safety agency and the China Toy Association, an industry group, all declined to comment.
Lead was long added to paint to make colors brighter and to gasoline to lubricate engine parts, but exposure can harm children and cause brain damage. The United States and other countries have banned leaded gasoline and limited the use of lead paint to ship hulls and other settings where children are unlikely to come into contact with it.
China has joined developed countries in tightening controls on lead after long ignoring the health and environmental cost of its 28-year-old economic boom. But the rules are difficult to enforce in a society with a thriving underground industry producing fake and substandard food, medicine and other goods. Lower-level authorities often are reluctant to force changes that might hurt local companies.
Sale of leaded gasoline was banned in 2000. But inspectors found it was being made by clandestine factories as late as 2004 for use in older vehicles, according to the State Environmental Protection Administration.
Lead’s health effects are being widely felt.
In the most serious case, 877 villagers near a lead smelter in the northwest’s Gansu province, including 334 children under 14, suffered lead poisoning, according to state media.
The smelter’s owners ran it at night with its pollution control gear turned off to save money, news reports said. They said some children might suffer permanent brain damage.
At the other end of the country, a study of 5,000 children in Dongguan, a boomtown near Hong Kong, found that 22.1 percent had lead in their blood in excess of safe levels, according to the newspaper Yangcheng Evening News.
Dongguan is home to hundreds of factories that produce low-cost furniture, toys and other goods for export to the United States and other markets, often under contract from foreign clients.
Globalization has added to the range of possible sources of lead contamination.
In China’s southeast, environmentalists say villages where residents dismantle discarded computers, TVs and other electronics from the United States and other countries by hand for recycling are contaminated with lead and other metals.
Environmentalists are lobbying Beijing to ban the use of lead in consumer goods.
Greenpeace’s Choi said the group also wants to see foreign companies make sure their contractors obey regulations.
“With the strong pressure that multinationals give Chinese suppliers to supply cheaper products, while trying to meet the demands of these companies, it happens that often they will neglect environmental regulations,” said Greenpeace’s Choi. “Multinationals should know that coming in.”