Authorities in the central Chinese province of Hunan have suspended three officials and placed the head of a local chemical plant under surveillance after more than 300 children were found to have excessive levels of lead in their blood, official media reported on Tuesday.
The officials were suspended from the environmental protection bureau in Hunan's Hengdong county, while local authorities halted production at the Meilun Chemical Materials Co. after the reports of lead poisoning emerged, the official Xinhua news agency said.
However, it appeared that no action had been taken against Su Genlin, head of Hengdong's Dapu township, after he said the children may have become poisoned after biting pencils, which contain not lead but graphite.
Local residents blamed untreated dust and waste water discharged from the Meilun plant.
Tests showed excessive levels of lead in the blood of more than 300 Dapu children, the Hengdong county government said in a statement.
An official who answered the phone at the Hengdong county government propaganda department said local government officials had set up an emergency investigation team on the issue.
"The investigation team has already arrived in Dapu," the official said.
"The environmental protection bureau has announced it will begin work immediately on the demolition of this factory's equipment, shut the factory down and carry out a full investigation."
No listed number was available online, or through directory information, for the Meilun plant.
Wave of cases
Polluting smelting and chemical plants have been blamed for a wave of lead poisoning cases affecting thousands of children across China in recent years, sometimes sparking violent protests.
And Chinese children who suffer lead poisoning as a result of industrial pollution are frequently sent back to live in contaminated environments and refused treatment, rights groups say.
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.
According to Xinhua, local residents appeared concerned that further testing carried out by health department officials might be falsified to cover up the extent of the problem.
It quoted one parent as saying children should be tested in major cities, rather than at local clinics.
"If we get accurate physical examination results, our children can get appropriate treatment," the parent told the agency.
Parents in similar circumstances in previous lead-poisoning cases elsewhere in China have accused local officials of manipulating local doctors to make lead levels appear to fall in children's test results.
Hangzhou-based independent journalist Zan Aizong said big polluters are rarely held to account by local governments.
"All of the big polluters are also big earners and big taxpayers," Zan said. "And the local governments will always protect these enterprises first, to boost GDP figures, while the lives of local people get pushed into second place."
"Of course, there are sure to be some vested interests behind the scenes, as well," he said.
He said local governments had forgotten their responsibilities to local residents.
"The government has a duty to protect the lives and health, employment, housing and environment of the people in its locality," Zan said. "They shouldn’t fail at this most basic task and try to pass the buck."
Henan-based photographer-turned-environmentalist Huo Daishan said there are plans afoot to alter the way in which the ruling Chinese Communist Party measures the achievements of its officials.
"There has already been a change in the thinking at the very top, but the local governments have become accustomed to the old system," Huo said. "It's a matter of changing the direction in which their interests lie."
"Their administrative actions should be bound up with their own interests," he said.
Huo said decades of breakneck economic development had already taken environmental damage in China past a tipping point, which those in power had long since seen coming.
"When we first started doing environmental protection [in this country], a lot of disastrous problems were predicted, but we never got down to the nitty-gritty [of what needed to be done]," Huo said.
"Now, problems are beginning to emerge in a number of areas. The disaster has happened," he said. "It is going to be extremely difficult to fix, because the damage has already been done."
Reported by Tang Qiwei for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Ren Ji for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.