A group of families will sue a chemical plant in the Hunan province, which they hold responsible for giving their children lead poisoning. The landmark case will be a test for China’s revised environmental protection law that came into effect in January.
According to a Reuters report, the first day of the case ended with a minor scuffle between the families and the lawyers representing the plant.
"It's not fair," Yang Yimei, the mother of two children with high lead levels, told Reuters. "The expert said today that the effects of lead exposure will last their entire life. I don't know what to do."
This is the first case in China to challenge a company for lead poisoning in a group of children. Reuters reports that the trial follows a series of public interest lawsuits, which became possible after the environmental protection law was passed. Lawyers say the case will test Beijing's commitment to tackling the health impact of widespread pollution.
"If courts begin to rule in favor of pollution victims more often in these types of cases, companies will be forced to internalize the cost of pollution," Alex Wang, an expert in Chinese environmental law from the UCLA School of Law, told Reuters. "Local governments faced with depressed economic conditions will likely resist imposing costs on factories, but greater public scrutiny and higher-level government attention may be able to counteract local protectionism."
Lead exposure is estimated to account for 143,000 deaths, with the majority of cases found in the developing world, the World Health Organization reports. Lead poisoning is particularly harmful to children, who can develop permanent intellectual disabilities. Thirteen families are seeking compensation—the amount varies with each child—from Melody Chemical, who they accuse of causing elevated levels of lead in their children's and grandchildren's blood.
An investigation was previously launched when a broadcast highlighted that 300 children had high lead levels. Melody Chemical was forced to shut down as a result. Lawyers representing Melody Chemical reportedly told the court that the claims were baseless and it would be impossible to find evidence to link the plant with these health claims. They also said that Melody Chemical’s emissions met legal guidelines.
The court did not mention when the trial would resume, but lawyers for the plaintiffs suggest the verdict could be announced within the next three months.