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Lead poisoning spurs relocation
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Authorities in northwest China are working to relocate at least 1,000 people living near a smelting plant suspected of causing lead poisoning in more than 600 people.

The government of Fengxiang County, in Shaanxi Province, began building new homes Thursday for 425 families living within a radius of 500 meters of Dongling Lead and Zinc Smelting Co. in Changqing Township.

The residents are expected to move to the new community, about a kilometer from their current homes, within two years, said He Hongnian, deputy county head. Construction costs were not available.

Pu Yiming, chief of Changqing, said the cost would largely be shared by the county government and local businesses.

"I'm ready to move, the earlier the better, as long as the new place has water, electricity and easier access to transport," said Lu Tao, who lives 100 meters from the plant.

Under the relocation plan, initiated before the plant was opened in 2006, the residents should have moved already. Officials with the county government said the delay was caused by "readjustments in the overall planning of the Changqing industrial park."

Residents think the delay may have endangered their health as 6-year-old Miao Fan was diagnosed with gastritis resulting from lead ingestion late July.

Miao's case sparked widespread fear among residents, who rushed their children to hospital for blood tests. The smelting plant was shut down on Aug. 6.

According to government-funded tests carried out by industrial illness specialists at Xi'an Central Hospital this week, 615 children -- about 85 percent of 731 children aged under 14 tested -- had excessive lead levels in their blood.

Of them, 166 children were admitted to hospital as their blood-lead levels exceeded 250 milligram a liter, compared with the normal level of zero to 100 mg a liter.

Villager Lei Xiaofei said his nine-year-old daughter Lei Xinyue was admitted to the county hospital early Friday. "Her blood lead level was 506 mg a liter, the highest of all the children tested. I really fear it might do her permanent harm."

Lei's doctor Luo Lei said she needed to spend at least a week in hospital. "She needs three days of medication and four days of observation. At the end of the week she will receive another blood test to see if the treatment has been effective."

Two further severe cases, 12-year-old Ma Yueyue and seven-year-old Ma Dongsheng were admitted to the same hospital Friday. Their blood lead levels were 480 mg and 499 mg a liter respectively.

The county government has promised to cover the children's medical expenses. For those receiving treatment at home, the government would provide milk, dried vegetables and nuts, which are believed to help expel excessive lead from the body, said official He Hongnian.

The smelting plant belongs to Dongling Group, one of the biggest private companies in Shaanxi Province. The plant in Changqing began operating in 2006, producing lead, zinc and coke. It directly accounted for 17 percent of the county's GDP last year.

(Xinhua News Agency August 14, 2009)

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