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Another smelter shut down amid lead poisoning fears
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Authorities in central China's Hunan Province have shut down a smelter and detained two of its executives after more than 1,300 local children were suspected to have lead poisoning, the second such scandal in the country within a month.

As of Wednesday, 1,354 children in Wenping town of Wugang City were diagnosed as having excessive lead in their blood, with more than 100 mg of lead a liter of blood compared with the normal zero to 100 mg, an official with the city government said Thursday.

They made up nearly 70 percent of the total 1,956 children who received government-funded blood tests at local hospitals this week, he said on condition of anonymity.

The children, aged under 14, are from four villages near Wugang Manganese Smelting Plant in Wenping town. However, they need another test by the industrial illness authority in the provincial capital Changsha before the final diagnosis, the official said.

By Thursday, 83 cases had been confirmed by the Changsha authority: 17 were diagnosed as "moderate poisoning" with blood lead level between 250 and 499 mg, 28 as "slight poisoning" with 200 to 249 mg and another 38 with 100 to 199 mg.

The 17 moderate poisoning cases have been hospitalized in Changsha and will receive free treatment, while the slight cases would be treated at home. Final test results for the other suspected cases will be published within a week.

Fears of lead poisoning began to spread among the villagers in early July, when many children suddenly became susceptible to cold and suffered fevers and anorexia.

"When I took my sons to hospital, the doctor asked if we lived near heavy metal plant," said a woman surnamed Lei from Hengjiang Village. "We suspected the manganese smelter that opened last year was to blame."

Lei's two sons, aged nine and one, had 184 mg and 198 mg of lead respectively.

"Whenever the plant is operational, we can see thick smokes and dusts in the air," said another villager.

Wugang Manganese Smelting Plant was suspended of operation on July 31. On Aug. 13, city authorities ordered its immediate shutdown. Police have detained two of its senior executives, Deng Qingguo and Yi Jianhua on suspicion of "causing severe environment pollution", but general manager Liu Zhongwu is still at large.

The plant opened in May 2008 without the approval of the local environment protection bureau, said Huang Wenbin, deputy environment chief in Wugang City.

Within a radius of 500 meters from the plant is a primary school, a middle school and a kindergarten.

"We used to recruit several hundred children every year but parents have stopped sending their children here this summer," said a kindergarten teacher. "Who knows, maybe our classrooms will all be empty when the new term begins next month."

The city government said it had launched an overhaul on more than 100 plants in Wugang, including seven other smelters.

In a similar scandal in northwest China's Shaanxi Province, discharges from a zinc and lead smelter have left 851 children ill with excessive lead in the blood. All the children live within 500 meters from the plant.

The local government has stepped up screening for more lead poisoning cases in six villages further from the plant, and 685 blood samples were taken on Wednesday.

(Xinhua News Agency August 20, 2009)

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