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Ministries send officials to head up lead poisoning probe
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Central government officials have been sent to Wugang in Hunan province in Central China to assist local authorities in dealing "more appropriately" with the lead poisoning scandal, which has left at least 1,000 children poisoned, Deputy Mayor Lei Zhanglin said.

"Officials from the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Ministry of Health have arrived at the city to fully investigate lead poisoning- related issues," Lei said over the weekend. "Everything is under control."

Lei said he believed the purpose of the central government's involvement is because officials want to instruct local authorities on how to deal with the aftermath of the massive lead poisoning case, so that things can be dealt with properly.

The latest figures show that almost 2,000 children, all younger than 14 from four villages near Wugang Manganese Smelting Plant in the Wenping township of Wugang, had undergone tests.

More than 1,350 were diagnosed as having excessive lead in their blood, a city official said yesterday.

Children are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning, which can damage brain function, the World Health Organization has said.

The children need another test done by the industrial illness authority in the provincial capital Changsha before the final diagnosis to ensure the accuracy of the test results, Lei said.

The poisonings were caused by emissions from the Wugang manganese smelting plant, according to a statement by the local government.

Liu Zhongwu, the plant's general manager, is still on the run after police detained two executives of the plant on suspicion of "causing severe environmental pollution".

Liu has been the deputy to the People's Congress of Shaoyang for two years. He is accused of abusing his power to run the plant without the approval of the local environmental protection bureau, Lei said.

Zhang Aiguo, director of the Environmental Protection Bureau of Wugang, admitted the agency's mistakes for not enforcing environmental standards, but he blamed it on technical difficulties and other factors, the media reported yesterday.

Meanwhile, one official denied that a lead poisoning case was found in another town near the manganese smelting plant, while another official said residents were organized to have their blood samples taken.

"We are organizing residents for blood tests after lead poisoning cases were reported by local residents who had their blood tested themselves," an official from Simachong township of Wugang, told China Daily yesterday on condition of anonymity.

But the official did not want to comment on whether any of the cases have been officially confirmed.

"We didn't find lead poisoning cases in any other town other than Wenping," an official surnamed Xiafrom the information office of the city told China Daily yesterday.

But a villager surnamed Dai from Simachong township said yesterday: "All of my family tested positive for lead poisoning after we had our blood samples tested ourselves," Dai said.

"By allowing those high-polluting plants to operate, the local government is, in fact, putting their financial benefit before our lives," she added.

(China Daily August 24, 2009)

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