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Angry villagers stage protest over lead poisoning
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Several hundred villagers in northwest China's Shaanxi Province broke into a smelting plant Monday to protest the lead poisoning of more than 600 children.

Their anger escalated after a teenage student in Changqing Township in Fengxiang County in Baoji attempted to commit suicide by drinking pesticide Sunday after her request for a blood test was denied by her parents.

Ma Jiaojiao, 19, Monday said she had asked her mother for money Sunday to get a blood test because she feared that she might be suffering from lead poisoning. Government-funded tests cover only children under 14.

"My mom said it was unnecessary because I am much older than 14," Ma said from her ward at the People's Hospital in Baoji. "We had a bad quarrel."

Out of rage and grief, she bought some pesticide and swallowed two mouthfuls at around 6 p.m. Her mother found her shortly afterward and sent her to a clinic. Ma was later transferred to Baoji for treatment.

A doctor said Monday Ma was out of danger.

Ma, born in 1990, is about to start her final year at senior high school next month. "I still think I need a blood test," she said.

The news that lead poisoning had led a suicide attempt spread quickly among the villagers Monday morning. Several hundred swarmed to the factory area of Dongling Lead and Zinc Smelting Co., dismantled 300 meters of fencing around a railway reserved for the company, and smashed trucks and other vehicles.

The plant's operations were suspended on August 6.

At least 10 trucks that had carried coal to the plant were damaged. Some of them were from Henan Province and the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region.

At 11:30 a.m., about 100 policemen were mobilized to maintain order.

Baoji Mayor Dai Zhengshe arrived at the site just after midday and called on the villagers to exercise restraint. He has been appointed as head of a newly-established pollution control team and said he was willing to settle the villagers' relocations and medical issues through dialogue.

The city government, starting Monday afternoon, mobilized more than 200 officials to hear the villagers' woes and help settle their issues.

By 2:30 p.m., most of the protesters had been appeased and gone home.

At least 615 children, of a total 731 under the age of 14 living in two villages near the plant showed excessive lead levels in their blood systems after they had undergone medical tests. Of 166 serious cases diagnosed as having lead levels of more than 250 mg a liter of blood compared with the normal zero to 100 mg a liter, 154 were hospitalized.

No action has been taken as yet to find out how lead poisoning has affected adults.

Residents living within a radius of 500 meters from the plant should have been relocated by this year according to a deal reached between the plant and Fengxiang county government before the plant opened in 2006. Relocation, however, is running far behind the government's schedule and only 156 of the 581 families involved had moved to new homes.

The government of Fengxiang County began building new homes last Thursday for the remaining 425 families, who are expected to move to the new community, about 1,350 meters from the smelter, within two years.

At Saturday's press conference, the local environment watchdog blamed the smelter for the lead poisoning.

"Lead content in the air along the main routes near the plant is 6.3 times that of monitoring sites 350 meters from the roads," said Han Qinyou, head of the Baoji Municipal Environmental Protection Monitoring Station.

But the official said lab tests on samples also showed "ground and surface water, soil and the smelter's waste discharge had all met national standards."

The words sparked doubt and controversy among villagers and millions of Internet users monitoring the situation.

Even an executive with the smelter admitted meeting "national standards for industrial discharges could still be way behind minimum requirements for habitation."

The smelter, which produces zinc, lead and coke, accounted for 17 percent of Fengxiang County's GDP last year.

(Xinhua News Agency August 17, 2009)

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