HONG KONG—Officials in the northwestern Chinese province of Shaanxi have ordered the closure of a zinc smelting plant after hundreds of local children were diagnosed with lead poisoning.
The Dongling Lead and Zinc Smelting Co. was ordered by environmental protection authorities in Fengxiang county to suspend lead and zinc production Aug. 6 following a public outcry.
Fengxiang county government has offered free blood tests for 1,016 children aged 14 and under from three villages of Changqing Township, official media reported.
A total of 851 children were found to have excessive lead levels in their blood, Xinhua news agency said. It said 155 children were still receiving hospital treatment, out of a total of 174 cases requiring hospitalization.
On Monday, Mayor Dai Zhengshe of nearby Baoji city, apologized for the lead poisoning and its harmful effects on residents, ordering an immediate halt to production, although smelting experts said this wasn't technically possible.
"Production has halted. The issue has been taken care of and everything has settled down," a Fengxiang county government official said Wednesday.
But residents suggested they found little comfort in that.
"All villagers are now worried, but what can they do?" one Changqing township farmer said.
Beijing-based legal expert Lan Zhengxue said that while the case itself is unsurprising because "similar incidents occur in China from time to time," he is troubled by the fact that the factory had passed local government environmental inspections.
"Local governments solely pursue economic results or GDP benchmarks while ignoring the impact of environmental damage. This is a lopsided development, which destroyed the environment and harms people's health. It's not sustainable," he said.
"Four of the smelting company's five smelting sections, which were responsible for lead poisoning, had ... ceased production before Aug.17," the agency said, quoting Baoji environmental chief Wang Hai'ao.
"All of the distillation columns will have stopped operation by Saturday morning," Xinhua quoted Wang as saying. "They will be totally destroyed."
Dongling would suffer losses of U.S. $1.47 million because of the closure, it said.
Hundreds of angry villagers tore down fences, smashed windows, and stoned vehicles on Monday, saying the factory had ignored previous orders to clean up its act.
Residents said they were surrounded by police and dispersed when officials came and promised free medical care, but only for youths under 14.
One man who identified himself by his surname, Sun, said one 16-year-old girl had been hospitalized after drinking pesticide. She was trying to commit suicide because she feared she was a victim of lead poisoning and wouldn't be covered by county medical services, he said.
Cao Linfu, a resident of Sunjiatou village, said one county leader had especially enraged villagers by suggesting the lead poisoning may have come from another source.
"The county chief says that our children's hands are not clean, that they may have put pencils in their mouth, and that vehicles' emissions also contain lead. Local residents were furious," Cao said
Fengxiang county villagers began a wave of protests, sit-ins, and official complaints earlier this year after their children began to get sick.
Villagers also broke into the smelting company's offices and smashed desks, computers, and windows.
They said underground wells had been polluted by wastewater and exhaust fumes from the zinc smelting factory nearby. Villagers had used the wells for drinking water and for irrigating crops like maize and millet.
The problems were compounded by the fact that the water looked clear and had no apparent taste, they said.
One resident of nearby Sunjia Nantou village surnamed Sun said that although the plant had provided villagers with job opportunities, the lead poisoning had forced many families to send their children to schools in other locations, increasing their living costs.
The Dongling zinc smelting plant was set up five years ago as part of a drive to develop one of the most impoverished regions of the country.
Original reporting by RFA's Mandarin and Cantonese services. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.