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China investigating officials after lead poisonings

A village woman claims her child was poisoned by Wugang Manganese Smelting Plant in Wenping township in China.
A village woman claims her child was poisoned by Wugang Manganese Smelting Plant in Wenping township in China.
Andy Wong, Associated Press

WENPING, China — Two environmental officials were being investigated Saturday after more than 1,300 children were sickened with lead poisoning caused by pollution from a manganese processing plant in central China.

The probe comes as officials seek to punish those responsible for the poisoning from the Wugang Manganese Smelting Plant in Wenping township in Hunan province. Days earlier, reports said emissions from a lead smelter in another province had sickened hundreds.

The plant in Wenping opened in May 2008 without the approval of the local environmental protection bureau, within 500 yards of a primary school, a middle school and a kindergarten.

The government of Wugang city in Hunan province said in a statement late Friday that two officials from the city's environmental protection bureau were being investigated for dereliction of duty. It did not provide details.

Zhang Aiguo, director of the Wugang environment bureau, told AP reporters it had tried to stop the plant from operating when the bureau learned it had not completed an environmental evaluation.

"We sent them a notice to stop production and they did stop," Zhang said. "But then, I guess a couple of months ago, maybe the metals industry started to recover a bit and they started production there again without letting us know."

Fears of poisoning began to spread among villagers in early July when many children became susceptible to colds and suffered fevers and other ailments, state media said.

The official Xinhua News Agency said Thursday that 1,354 children who live near the plant — nearly 70 percent of those tested — were found to have excessive lead in their blood. Lead poisoning can damage the nervous and reproductive systems and cause high blood pressure and memory loss.

The government statement said 17 children who had high levels of lead poisoning were being treated at a hospital and receiving further tests. Calls to the city government and health bureau rang unanswered Saturday.

At the Hunan Province Industrial Contaminant Disease Prevention Hospital in the provincial capital of Changsha, nurses and doctors handed out medicine and monitored children who sat on beds and stood in hallways, accompanied by parents.

A man surnamed Xiang said his 3-year-old son Xiang Yucun had been under observation for 10 days since excessive lead was found in his blood.

"I heard that there was a problem with the lead poisoning in the town, so I went to have him checked. That is how we found out," Xiang said.

The hospital's deputy director, Zhang Yirui, said treatment to remove the lead is available but may have adverse side effects.

"In children, expelling the lead like this is a harsh process for the body because a lot of other nutrients and things the body needs are also lost," Zhang said. "So we deliberate it carefully before we use the medicines with the children."

Residents say hundreds of villagers rioted on Aug. 8 after news broke about the lead poisoning. One woman said a crowd of about 600 to 700 people overturned four police cars and smashed a local government sign.

In Shaanxi province in northern China, at least 615 out of 731 children in two villages near the Dongling smelter in the town of Changqing have tested positive for lead poisoning.