Zhentou town in the northeast of Hunan province attracted nationwide attention five months ago when thousands of residents protested against heavy-metal poisoning from a nearby chemical plant. The factory was shut, and local and provincial authorities quickly promised to offer free health treatment and payouts for farmland rendered toxic. But now the reporters are gone, and so are the promises. The government has stopped paying for hospital care and no longer offers compensation. Food and water continue to be trucked in, but villagers cannot grow anything - the soil will be contaminated for the next 60 years. Healthy residents are leaving, and those who stay wonder how they can make a living. Their town, it seems, is dying. 'No one dares to buy our crops or vegetables. Girls who are of an age to be married can no longer find husbands. Men can't get married either,' said one resident, Luo Jinzhi . 'Many young people have to leave the village and work in other provinces as labourers. Old and sick people stay here - here in the wasteland.' Another villager, Luo Shenqiao , says the authorities are trying to isolate the town and stop negative stories from getting out. 'They have stopped our internet network. They want to stop all channels for us to tell outsiders what a tragedy happened here.' The Xianghe Chemical Plant opened among a cluster of villages along the Liuyang river in 2004, producing indium and zinc sulphate, with cadmium as a by-product. But within a few years, villagers noticed their children were falling ill and began to complain about the factory's pollution and the contamination of their farmland. A stench hung around their wells, an oily layer coating the 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. Some began dying. Officials assured them there was no pollution problem. 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 this past May that they understood that the plant that had been spewing untreated waste from heavy-metal processing into their river, and contaminating their groundwater, was killing them. Officials said five people had died as a result, and villagers say a sixth person died in October, and a seventh last month. In August, local authorities said almost 600 people had been seriously affected by exposure to the chemicals, but villagers say the true number is likely to be twice or even three times as high. Liu Hanming , a 58-year-old villager from nearby Shuangqiao, was one of 40 locals hired to work at the plant. His daughter-in-law, Huang Mei , explained his condition. 'His health is now among the worst group in the village. His throat, joints, kidneys hurt very much. 'He usually wakes up in the middle of the night and walks around the courtyard because of the pain. We all can't help but cry when we see his suffering. 'We have spoken to the town chief and demanded free treatment. He appeared cold-blooded and told my father-in-law: 'You won't die and just let it be.' We were angry and argued with him at his office. He said the government had acted humanely and did its duty.' Other villagers complain of symptoms consistent with excessive exposure. 'I think I'm dying just as my brother-in-law did,' said Zhang Shue , 46, also from Shuangqiao. Her relative died in May. 'I have been coughing up blood since last month. I pleaded with the government to go to hospital.' Tests found she had 18 times the acceptable level of cadmium in her body. On December 7, villagers, for at least the sixth time since the problem arose, took to the streets and clashed with the authorities. According to the villagers, 26 police vehicles were sent to three villages in the early hours of the morning to stop the residents who were planning to travel to Changsha , capital of Hunan, to deliver a petition. Undaunted, about 4,000 villagers set out on foot. Only 400 managed to evade security and reach the provincial petition office in Changsha. 'The officers there were shocked to see us, since they thought Zhentou's poisoning case was already over,' said Luo Shenqiao , another Shuangqiao villager. Such a reaction doesn't surprise Luo Jinzhi, whose family home is just 200 metres from the plant. 'The Zhentou government told the outside world that the poisoning problem had been solved properly. Actually, officials care little about our villagers. They are only interested in covering up the truth and intimidating Zhentou people to prevent them from staging protests. They turn a deaf ear to their suffering.' Several villagers, including Luo's younger brother, Luo Jianjun, were detained during the confrontation. 'The police gave us a statement saying they would detain my brother for 10 days, since he blocked the road in collusion with other people. The statement offers 14 witnesses to prove my brother's 'guilt', but all the witnesses were anonymous, as they only listed their surname,' Luo Jinzhi said. 'The statement is false, since some surnames on the statement don't even exist in our village.' Even the healthier residents are finding it difficult getting a job. Luo Jianxiang , 42, who worked at Xianghe, went to Chenzhou for a sand excavation job in September. But he was fired after his boss learned he came from Zhentou and suffered from health problems. Under great pressure from the township government, a handful of Zhentou representatives travelled to other cities in Hunan that had faced similar incidents where industrial poisoning had triggered mass unrest. 'We went to Huitong village in Guanqiao town, just about 10 kilometres from Zhentou, where there was case of lead poisoning in 2003. We also went to Zhuzhou's Xinma village, where there was cadmium poisoning last year,' said a representative, who refused to give his name. 'Their compensation packages are very little. And the government just let the cases close as time passed by.' As the truth was emerging in Zhentou, it was discovered that hundreds of children had been poisoned by lead from a manganese smelter in Wenping township in Hunan province, and that more than 600 from Shaanxi province were found to be suffering from lead poisoning. Pay them money and wait it out, say some critics. That appears to be the strategy of mainland bureaucrats to fix any number a social problems. The courts intervene only on rare occasions. But as more cases of large-scale industrial pollution emerge, the 'pay-and-wait' response may prove to be inadequate. After the spate of protests over pollution, the central government's environmental watchdog pledged in October to monitor heavy-metal pollution in the worst-affected areas and along major rivers to find out how many residents had been affected. Zhou Shengxian , minister for environmental protection, said the ministry would join with the National Development and Reform Commission and the ministries of Health, Finance, Agriculture, and Industry and Information Technology on a plan to curb heavy-metal pollution and solve villagers' problems. But will change come fast enough? For Zhang Shue, who has been coughing up blood, perhaps not. 'The authorities know we're dying. They know it's all their responsibility.' Tomorrow part 2: The hundreds who have fallen ill from lead poisoning in Shaanxi province.