BEIJING – Hundreds of people in northwestern China have been hospitalized with lead poisoning that was likely caused by pollution from a nearby smelter, state media and local officials said Wednesday.
The poisonings in two villages in poverty-stricken Gansu province added to a string of recent pollution disasters in China that have prompted violent protests in some areas.
The first sign of trouble in the villages of Xinsi and Moba came on Aug. 18, when medical tests showed 10 people had high levels of lead in their blood, the Beijing Daily Messenger reported.
Health officials conducted checkups and "discovered that almost every family in the villages had the same kind of problem," or at least 879 residents, the newspaper said. The youngest victim was 5 months old.
"Children started feeling ill and their parents brought them to a local hospital," an official from Huixian county, where the two villages are located, said by phone. "We suspect that they were sickened by pollution caused by a lead smelter nearby that discharged waste into the air."
The smelter was shut down and an investigation was under way, the official said. He refused to give his name or the name of the smelting company.
The smelter was to be moved to another location soon and the local government was paying for hospital bills for the villagers, the official said. They were being treated at a hospital in neighboring Shaanxi province because it had better facilities.
Telephones at the Xijing Hospital in Shaanxi's capital, Xi'an, were not answered Wednesday.
Excessive amounts of lead can damage the nervous and reproductive systems and cause high blood pressure and anemia. The metal accumulates in bones, and is especially harmful to pregnant women and young children.
Lead poisoning can be diagnosed from a blue line around the gums and in severe cases can cause convulsions, coma and death.
Environmental protection has become a prominent issue in China following a number of industrial accidents in the past year in which major rivers have been poisoned, forcing several cities to shut down their water systems.
Chinese cities are among the world's smoggiest following two decades of breakneck economic growth. The government says all of China's major rivers are dangerously polluted. Millions of people lack access to clean drinking water.
Lawmakers have said they are considering raising fines for environmental violators in order to encourage companies to spend more on clean technology.
But health problems stemming from pollution are still common, and villagers in rural China are becoming increasingly frustrated. Last year, farmers in the eastern province of Zhejiang clashed with police during an anti-pollution protest at a battery factory.
They said the factory discharged wastewater about 650 yards away from nine nearby villages, causing high levels of lead in their children's blood.
At least 700 children were found to have been poisoned, state media said.