Authorities in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong have evacuated a school campus following an explosion at a nearby chemical factory, sending dozens to hospital for medical checks, officials and local media said on Tuesday.
Fifty-seven students and a teacher were evacuated from the Tongmao Primary School in Guangdong's Dongsheng township and taken to the hospital following a blast and subsequent leakage from the Huili Chemical Factory just 100 meters away from their classrooms, local media reported.
According to the Guangzhou-based Southern Metropolis Daily newspaper, the leak came after a failed transformer sparked an explosion in the plant.
An official who answered the phone at the Dongsheng township propaganda bureau confirmed the incident had taken place.
"We evacuated all the students from the primary school within the first half an hour," the official said. "Any students who felt unwell were taken to the hospital."
He said the authorities would now investigated the cause of the blast.
"The next step is definitely to rectify the situation, and to hand out punishments where appropriate," the official said. "However, the details haven't emerged yet."
He declined to comment on whether the primary school or the factory would be relocated.
"This is a matter for township commerce and industry bureau, so I can't comment on that right now," the official said.
Calls to the Tongmao Primary School and the Huili Chemical Factory rang unanswered during office hours on Tuesday.
A resident of Dongsheng surnamed Chen said local people are extremely concerned about the blast.
"Of course, people are worried," Chen said. "There are so many kids there, and there's a chemical factory right next to the school."
The Dongsheng incident comes after a massive blast ripped through a petrochemicals complex in the southeastern province of Fujian in April, following a string of earlier safety failures which further damaged public trust in the chemical industry.
Number of complaints grows
Rapid industrial development involving partnerships between cash-strapped local governments and local industry have resulted in a growing number of complaints about pollution near residential areas or schools in recent years, including documented incidents of lead poisoning in children who live near smelting facilities.
In 2013, students at a primary school in the eastern city of Wenzhou complained of nosebleeds, dizziness and headaches, sparking an investigation that revealed 36 possible sources of pollution within a kilometer radius of the school.
And in 2014, several students and teachers at a primary school in the southwestern province of Sichuan experienced fainting fits, prompting protests from parents who blamed pollution from a nearby chemical plant.
Wuxi-based environmental activist Wu Lihong said local governments typically turn a blind eye to infringement of pollution regulations by local companies.
"It's a terrible tragedy ... but there is a lot of fakery in China's environmental protection regime at the moment," Wu told RFA.
"A lot of the time ... they will go ahead and build the factory first, then carry out an environmental impact assessment."
"If something goes wrong, they'll deal with it after the disaster happens," he said.
Public protest in Shanghai
Fears over inadequate government regulation were at the heart of several days of mass public protest in Shanghai's Jinshan district in recent days, where local residents have continued to march against the relocation of a paraxylene (PX) plant to their neighborhood, in spite of repeated assurances that the project isn't in the pipeline.
Protests only subsided on Monday after the intervention of the Shanghai municipal authorities who carry huge political clout and who made a public announcement promising the Jinshan PX project wouldn't go ahead.
They have said that there won't be a PX project ... but the government just wants to calm everybody down," a Jinshan resident who declined to be named told RFA on Monday.
"We have achieved the aim we had at the outset," she said.
But she said concerns still remain among local residents.
"We have very serious pollution from the chemical industrial district here, and these recent protests were like a spark in a powder keg," she said.
She said local people believe that Jinshan has a higher-than-average incidence of cancer, and that a lack of official transparency around such large-scale projects means local people remain highly suspicious of government claims.
China has an exemplary set of environmental protection legislation, but environmental protection officials at the local level are often powerless to enforce them, as polluting companies often have close ties with their immediate superiors, activists say.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wei Ling for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.