The number of children confirmed to be suffering from heavy-lead poisoning in a major city in Hunan province rose from four to 28 within four days, state media reported yesterday.
Liu Jianrong, vice-president of the Chenzhou Municipal Hospital of Traditional Chinese Medicine, said dozens of parents had brought their children to the hospital in the past four days to have their lead levels checked after reports of a lead-poisoning incident in Guiyang county, Chenzhou city.
The youngest child found with an excessive level of lead in their blood was only 11 months old, the Xinhua report said.
The culprit in this metal contamination is a lead smelting plant in Guiyang county, which had been operating illegally since 2007. The plant was shut down after the scandal broke, the report said. It was one of more than 300 smelters in the county allowed to run without approval.
Local residents said the plant had been forced to move there from neighbouring Guangdong province, where environmental standards are stricter.
The local environmental watchdog said it was aware of the toxic metal leaks from the smelter and had repeatedly ordered it to halt production.
But residents said their grievances had fallen on deaf ears and local authorities had allowed the plant, a main contributor to the local economy, to operate.
The incident is the latest in a long list of heavy-metal pollution scandals in Hunan over the past decades.
The Xiang River, which provides drinking water to more than 40 million people, has been known for its metal pollution problems since the early 1970s and is now one of the dirtiest rivers in China.
Provincial governor Zhou Qiang promised during the recent national conference a week ago to turn the pollution-plagued Xiang River into China's Rhine.