Govt officials investigated in China lead poisoning case


June 18, 2010 Updated Aug 22, 2009 at 3:31 PM EDT

Two environmental officials in central China are being investigated after more than 1,300 children tested positive for suspected lead poisoning, the local government said.

The move comes after two executives of the Wugang Manganese Smelting Plant in Hunan province were arrested and the factory shut down for pollution leading to the suspected cases, the Wugang government said.

"Following a preliminary probe, a case of dereliction of duty has been established against two officials from the city environmental protection bureau," the Wugang government said in a statement posted on its website late Friday.

Police are still trying to track down another plant executive who is at large, the government said.

Medical officials have so far confirmed 45 cases in which lead levels exceeded 200 milligrams per litre, Xinhua news agency reported earlier this week.

Preliminary tests found that a total of 1,354 children -- or about 70 percent of those aged under 14 in four villages near the smelter -- were found to have levels of lead in their blood that exceed safe levels, it said.

The Wugang government said 17 of the most severely affected children have been hospitalised.

A primary school, a middle school and a nursery are located within a 500-metre (1,650-foot) radius of the plant, Xinhua said.

Lead levels of between zero and 100 milligrams are considered normal. A reading of more than 200 milligrams is considered hazardous, with children more vulnerable to lead poisoning which can harm the nervous system.

According to Saturday's Beijing News, the plant was using a banned product in the manganese smelting process that led to excessive lead emissions.

The Wugang incident follows another case in northern Shaanxi province, where more than 850 children have been affected by lead poisoning caused by pollution from a smelting plant, according to Xinhua.

More than 170 children in Shaanxi's Changqing township were hospitalised, the agency said.

On Monday, villagers stormed the Shaanxi smelter, smashing trucks in anger at the case. The plant has also been shut down.

China's rapid industrialisation has led to widespread environmental damage over the last 30 years, with the nation boasting some of the world's worst water and air pollution.

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