Lead poisonings spark investigation

Associated Press

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.

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 in 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, said the agency had tried to stop the plant from operating because 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 suffered colds, fevers and other ailments, state news media said.

The official New China News Agency said Thursday that 1,354 children who live near the plant, or nearly 70% 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 that 17 children who had high levels of lead poisoning were being treated at a hospital and undergoing further tests.

Residents say hundreds of villagers rioted 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.

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