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Chemical plant boss held over sudden deaths
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Authorities in central China have suspended two environment officials and detained a chemical plant boss after hundreds of residents protested, claiming the factory polluted a river and caused at least two deaths in the area.

Hunan's environment monitoring authorities confirmed that as of last Friday, they discovered cadmium content exceeded legal levels for 509 people, the province's leading news Website portal, Rednet.com.cn, reported last night. Cadmium is a known carcinogen.

The authorities tested a total of 2,888 people, the report said.

The authorities also tested 622 water samples but didn't find an abnormal cadmium content.

The report said 33 people who took the cadmium test must undergo inpatient treatment, and 25 of them have been hospitalized at the provincial labor health medical center. The other eight declined to be hospitalized and were receiving outpatient treatment, the report said.

The 33 people lived between 500 meters and 1,200 meters from the chemical factory, the report said.

Last Thursday about 1,000 villagers took to the streets in Zhentou Township, in Hunan's Liuyang City, protesting detention of six villagers the previous day during demonstrations against pollution caused by the chemical plant, according to Xinhua news agency.

The legal representative of the plant was detained and the chief and one deputy chief of Liuyang Environment Protection Bureau were suspended from their posts for further investigation, said a spokesman for the Liuyang government.

Local authorities declined to give the names of those under inquiry.

The villagers have been protesting the pollution since the deaths of two people, with excessive cadmium levels found in their bodies, more than two months ago.

Last Thursday, villagers gathered at the township government building and police station, asking for free health checks, free medical treatment and compensation for polluted crops and land.

A source from the Hunan Provincial Environmental Protection Department said the private business, Changsha Xianghe Chemical Factory in Shuangqiao Village of the township, began refining indium, a rare malleable metal, in April 2004.

According to local villagers, soon after that, large areas of trees began to wither and die and some villagers felt fatigue, dizziness, difficulty in breathing and sore joints.

Later, medical exams confirmed that the content of cadmium exceeded legal levels for an unspecified number of villagers.

In May this year, a 44-year-old resident in Shuangqiao Village, Luo Bolin, died suddenly, and the provincial labor health medical center found that the cadmium content in Luo's body "seriously exceeded" legal levels, Xinhua said.

A month later, another villager, Yang Shuzhi, 61, was hospitalized with a respiratory disease and died soon after. The center discovered in a urine test that Yang's cadmium was more than four times the legal level, according to Xinhua.

From the onset, the plant was riddled with problems, including poor environmental management, heaping of solid waste and a lack of rainwater-collection devices.

Villagers said the plant was harming the local environment with excessive concentrations of toxic heavy metals cadmium and indium, which endangered the safety of drinking water.

Authorities in Changsha, the provincial capital, said illegal operations at the factory produced cadmium pollution. They said areas within a 1,200-meter radius of the factory were tainted.

The environmental protection department ordered the plant to halt production in March this year.

Government departments in Changsha and Liuyang have set up a joint group to carry out surveys into the plant's negative impact on the environment and people's health.

(Shanghai Daily August 3, 2009)

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