BEIJING Lead pollution from workshops in eastern China seriously poisoned 103 children and has affected hundreds of other residents in the country's latest case of unfettered industrial toxins, the official Xinhua news agency reported on Sunday.
The pollution from tinfoil-making workshops in Yangxunqiao town in Zhejiang province left the children, aged 14 or younger, with 250 microgrammes or more of lead for every liter of blood.
Another 26 adults were found to have "severe lead poisoning, or with more than 600 microgrammes of lead per liter of blood," the report said, citing local health officials.
"Workers and their family members, including children, are constantly exposed to lead materials in the family-run workshops," said the report, adding that a dozen of the children were receiving hospital treatment for the lead.
Nearly 500 other residents of the township were found to have "moderate" lead poisoning, with 400 to 600 microgrammes of lead per liter of blood.
This is the latest reported case of a pollution problem that has stricken many towns and villages across China, where residents often live within meters of laxly regulated factories and workshops competing to produce cheaply.
That industrial growth has run up against residents increasingly worried about their health. Most of the workers in the tinfoil plants are migrants from other, poorer parts of China, said the Xinhua report.
Lead poisoning can build up through regular exposure to small amounts of lead, damaging the nervous and reproductive systems and kidneys, as well as causing high blood pressure and anemia. Lead is especially harmful for children and can lead to learning difficulties and behavioral problems.
China's environment ministry has called for urgent measures to tackle heavy metal poisoning as cases of mass poisoning have created widespread public anger.
"The prevention of heavy metal pollution concerns the health of the people, especially children's health, and concerns social harmony and stability," the Minister of Environmental Protection, Zhou Shengxian, said in May.
But Beijing has often failed to match vows to clean up polluters with the resources and political will to enforce such demands, as local officials put growth, revenue and jobs ahead of environmental protection.
China is the world's biggest consumer of refined lead, and
battery making accounts for 70 percent of that consumption, which is likely to grow to 4.1 million tonnes in 2011.
Dozens of people living near a big battery factory in Zhejiang were found to have dangerously high levels of lead poisoning, local news reports said in March.
In 2009, protesters broke into one smelting plant they blamed for the lead poisoning of more than 600 children, and smashed trucks and tore down fences before police stopped them.
Faced with rising public concern, the government has said it will crack down on lead pollution, especially in Zhejiang province, which is home to many small manufacturers of batteries and other products that use the metal.
About three-quarters of lead-acid battery manufacturing plants in China could be phased out in the next 2 to 3 years after Beijing launched a crackdown, an industry body said last month.
In Yangxunqiao, the site of the latest pollution outbreak, 25 workshops suspended production, said Xinhua. The township has nearly 200 tinfoil-making workshops that in total employ more than 2,500 people, said the report.
(Reporting by Chris Buckley; Editing by Alex Richardson)