China birth defects soar due to pollution: report

BEIJING Mon Oct 29, 2007 2:02am EDT

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BEIJING (Reuters) - Birth defects in Chinese infants have soared nearly 40 percent since 2001, a government report said, and officials linked the rise to China's worsening environmental degradation.

The rate of defects had risen from 104.9 per 10,000 births in 2001, to 145.5 in 2006, affecting nearly one in 10 families, China's National Population and Family Planning Commission said in a report on its Web site (www.chinapop.gov.cn).

Infants with birth defects now accounted for "about 4 to 6 percent of total births every year," the family planning agency said. Of these, 30 percent would die and 40 percent would be "disabled."

The World Health Organization estimates about 3 to 5 percent of children worldwide are born with birth defects.

China's coal-rich northern province of Shanxi, a centre of noxious emissions from large-scale coke and chemical industries, had the highest rate of defects, Xinhua news agency said in a report carried by Monday's Beijing News.

"The incidence of birth defects is related to environmental pollution," the newspaper quoted An Huanxiao, director of Shanxi's provincial family planning agency, as saying.

"The survey's statistics show that birth defects in Shanxi's eight large coal-mining regions are far above the national average," An said.

The report said about 2 to 3 million babies are born in China with "visible defects" every year, and a further 8 to 12 million would develop defects within months or years after birth.

Officials had also linked high defect rates to poor, rural areas, and regions that suffered "high rates of illness."

About 460,000 Chinese die prematurely each year from breathing polluted air and drinking dirty water, according to a World Bank study.

The report comes as Beijing tries to improve air quality in time for the August 2008 Olympics, with high levels of small particulate matter -- which are sometimes more than 200 percent above recommended safe level -- of particular concern.

China, home to some of the world's most polluted cities, has pledged to cut emissions and clean up its environment, laid waste after decades of breakneck development.

But lax local enforcement and an insatiable demand for energy to feed its booming economy continue to undermine environmental policy goals.

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