The people of Shuangqiao in Hunan knew they had been deceived about the factory that went up near their homes five years ago. Those who went to work there found it was not processing animal feed, as villagers had been told, but chemicals. Within a couple of years, they and their neighbours in surrounding villages began noticing strange things - a stench from their wells and an oily layer on the water's surface. The greens they grew in their fields wilted and the leaves were flecked; chickens and ducks died; children's growth was stunted and they became fidgety. Many villagers developed sore throats and their limbs ached. Last year doctors found excessive lead in a boy of five, and villagers began to suspect the factory as the cause. But it was only three months ago that they understood the plant that had been spewing untreated waste from heavy-metals processing into their soil was killing them. 'In May, we suddenly realised we would be killed by this factory,' Luo Jinzhi , 47, said. 'But it is too late to stop it. Most families have one or two members who got poisoned. 'We are wondering who will be the next to die.' The same thought is haunting Ouyang Guoping as he watches his wife grow daily weaker. Both have cadmium poisoning, but her symptoms are more serious. He has already watched his older brother, Shuzhi, die. In April Ouyang Shuzhi , who had worked part-time at the Xianghe Chemical factory, fell seriously ill. Within days, the once-robust farmer had developed dental ulcers, serious headaches and painful limbs. He was so ill doctors thought the 61-year-old had cancer. 'Doctors finally found an excessive amount of cadmium in his body on May 10. He died on May 28,' Ouyang Guoping said. He was not the first villager to die suddenly after his body became riddled with cadmium and indium - used to make batteries and liquid crystal displays respectively. Luo Bailin , 44, died a few days earlier. Three others have died in similar circumstances in and around Shuangqiao, villagers say, and officials say more than 500 have been poisoned. Villagers say thousands more need medical checks and believe the number poisoned is higher. It did not take that long for villagers and doctors to link the deaths to the factory 300 metres from their homes. From the start of operations in 2004 the plant - now shuttered and deserted after the local government ordered it to close last month - had discharged waste water containing cadmium and indium residues into sewers and heaped untreated solid waste in the open air. Only recently was a shed built to hold this waste. Since May, Shuangqiao's 4,000 residents have been living on food and water trucked in from elsewhere - after laboratory tests on soil samples showed its once-fertile fields would not be safe to farm for 60 years. Villagers feel deceived. 'The boss must have made a huge profit. He only paid us 18 yuan (HK$20.40) a day and invested nothing in environmental-protection equipment,' said Luo Shenqiao , 53, of Shuangqiao, one of 30 villagers hired to work at the plant. He said it produced tonnes of waste, which it discharged - at night - every four or five days. Mr Luo said villagers had complained several times in the past three years to the government of Zhentou township, which administers the villages, but that officials had assured them there was no pollution problem. Only after the deaths in May did the villagers realise that the fertile soil they had tilled for generations, the well their ancestors had drunk from, and they themselves were poisoned by heavy metals. The plant is owned by a Hunan native. Last night his whereabouts were unknown. On Wednesday villagers staged a protest for free medical checks and treatment, and compensation for their ruined land. Six were detained. The next day 1,000 besieged the local police station and government office to demand their release. They are threatening another protest on Tuesday, when the government plans to stop paying daily compensation of up to 12 yuan. The local government did not return calls seeking comment. Ouyang Guoping's wife, Zhang Shu'e , is among those pressing for more medical help. 'I think I'm dying, since my symptoms are similar to my brother-in-law's. I pleaded with the government to go to hospital ... but they just gave me medicine and said I'm not sick enough,' she said.