Initial investigations in Nanjing point to a commonly used rat poison as the most likely cause of a serious food poisoning incident on last Saturday, which hit more than 200 people, causing an as yet undetermined number of fatalities, local sources said.
"Initial investigations indicate there was rat poison in the food that was served to the victims," said Zhou Qiang, a publicity official with the Jiangsu provincial government.
He said the poison could have been deliberately put into the food by someone, but public security authorities were still looking into the case.
Doctors attending the victims said the symptoms were consistent with those for people exposed to rat poison.
A Xinhua News Agency story earlier said "over 200 students from a local middle school and workers on a construction site ... were poisoned from eating fried dough sticks, sesame cakes and glutinous rice Saturday morning. A number of them have died."
But local sources contacted by China Daily said that the number of the poisoned people was larger and that they suspected dozens could have died.
The casualties could not be confirmed by the authorities who gave no further information. But Zhou said the number is definitely "less than a hundred," as previously reported by some Hong Kong papers.
The victims were mostly students from four schools and transient workers from a construction site in Tangshan, a small town to the east of Nanjing, the capital of Jiangsu Province.
They were sent to 10 local hospitals for emergency treatment, and 500 medical personnel have been mobilized to deal with the case, according to local sources.
They became sick after eating the food from Heshenyuan Soybean Milk Shop, a designated supplier of breakfast to schools for the past years. The catering service has been shut down and its owner has been taken into custody for questioning.
The central authorities have asked that everything possible be done to save the victims. Municipal leaders immediately went to the scene to co-ordinate rescue work.
The ministries of health and public security have sent personnel to help in the rescue work and the investigation of the case.
State television showed provincial and city officials visiting the patients, promising to use all measures to treat them, and the doctors and nurses attending the victims.
"It is really unbearable to see the young children dying right before my eyes and their parents crying desperately," said one doctor at the rescue site.
Another doctor at the emergency ward of a local air force hospital, who declined to be named, said some people were still in critical condition.
"The poisoned will not be out of danger for another 72 hours," he said. "We are watching them non-stop."
Outside the wards of local hospitals, hundreds of family members are waiting for news of their loved ones.
(China Daily September 16, 2002)