As the number of parents reporting lead poisoning in their children continues to rise, authorities in Shanghai said on Friday they had halted production at two battery-making plants, one of which is owned by a Fortune 500 company.
"A small number of children living in the Kangqiao area in eastern Shanghai were found to have excessive levels of lead in their blood in early September," the Shanghai Environmental Protection Bureau said in a statement.
Battery maker Shanghai Johnson Controls International Battery Co.—a unit of the New York-listed Johnson Controls—was found in an initial probe to have been emitting dust and smoke containing lead, it added.
Another plant called Shanghai Xinmingyuan Auto Accessories had also been shut down after it was found using lead in production without proper approval.
Meanwhile, residents of Kangqiao New Village in Shanghai's Pudong district said government officials had been visiting the homes of families who said their children were affected by lead poisoning.
An employee who answered the phone at the Shanghai Johnson Controls plant on Thursday confirmed the plant had been ordered to stop.
"We received a notice from the government telling us that our lead levels had already reached the annual allowable maximum," said the employee, surnamed Xu. "Therefore we have to halt production temporarily."
Johnson Controls, ranked 76th on this year's Fortune 500 list, said it does not believe it is the source of the contamination.
"We acknowledge and take these concerns very seriously," Rebecca K. Fitzgerald, external communications director at Johnson Controls' power division, said by e-mail.
"We are anxious to cooperate with the government in any way we can to understand and help them address these issues. However, we have no reason to believe we are the source of the issue."
A Kangqiao resident surnamed Lu said officials had told local parents that the factories were being closed for one week, during which officials would seek to determine the source of the pollution.
Lu said large numbers of officials had descended on Kangqiao after the first reports of the lead poisoning came out, and that they had stopped foreign journalists from interviewing local families.
"The residents were arguing with the officials, and after that the journalists were allowed to conduct their interviews," he said. "The residents guarded the door to keep the officials out."
A second round of testing carried out at the government's behest by the Xinhua hospital showed that lead levels had dropped sharply and returned to normal in the children, sparking suspicion among parents.
Initial results conducted without official knowledge or approval showed moderate-to-high levels of lead in their blood, with some measuring 300 micrograms/liter of blood, parents told RFA earlier this week.
Brain development can be affected in children who have as little as 100 micrograms of lead per liter of blood.
Children are particularly vulnerable to lead poisoning, which can result in neurological, liver, and kidney impairment, as well as anemia, convulsions, coma, and death.
High levels of lead exposure can cause permanent intellectual and developmental disabilities, including reading and learning disabilities, behavioral problems, hearing loss, attention problems, and disruption in the development of visual and motor functioning.Test results questioned
A second Kangqiao resident surnamed Li said people were suspicious of their children's test results because they were handwritten.
"The results that came back from the hospital were handwritten," Li said. "Perhaps this is because there were so many people getting tested, but it doesn't really inspire confidence."
Lu agreed that public trust in local officials was running very low.
"None of us believe in their investigation, because after this affair came to light, there have been a lot of local and foreign reporters interviewing local people, and things have got very high-profile," Lu said.
"They have announced these closures and investigations to stop us kicking up such a big fuss internationally," he said.
Calls to the Pudong New District government offices met with a constant busy signal during office hours on Thursday.
Reported by Fung Yat-yiu for RFA's Cantonese service. Additional reporting and translation by Luisetta Mudie.