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August 21, 2009

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Plant shut in Hunan lead scare

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 be suffering from 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 found to have excessive lead in their blood, a city government official said yesterday.

They accounted for nearly 70 percent of the children who received government-funded blood tests at local hospitals this week, he said on condition of anonymity.

The children, all under age 14, were from four villages near the Wugang Manganese Smelting Plant in Wenping Town. They will also need another test by the industrial health authority in the provincial capital Changsha before a final diagnosis, the official said.

As of yesterday, 83 excessive-lead cases had been confirmed by the Changsha authority.

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

"When I took my sons to the hospital, the doctor asked if we lived near a 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, ages 9 and 1, had lead levels almost twice the normal range.

"Whenever the plant is operating, we can see thick smoke and dust in the air," said another villager.

Operations at the Wugang Manganese Smelting Plant were suspended on July 31. On August 13, city authorities ordered a formal shutdown.

Police detained two of the plant's senior executives, Deng Qingguo and Yi Jianhua, on suspicion of "causing severe environment pollution." General Manager Liu Zhongwu was still at large.

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


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