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By Phyllis Xu and Lucy Hornby
JIYUAN COUNTY, CHINA, Oct 19 (Reuters) - China plans to move 15,000 residents in its’s biggest lead smelting area away from the plants in order to allow them to keep operating, after tests showed over 1,000 children had excessive lead in their blood.
Some smelters and lead production lines in Jiyuan, Henan province, had shut for nearly two months after the lead tests, which came amid a spate of cases of high lead in children leaving and going to school in the shadow of smelters across China.
The mayor of Jiyuan, Zhao Suping, said 15,000 people in 10 villages around the plants would move at a total cost of about 1 billion yuan ($150 million), allowing lead plants including China’s largest, owned by Yuguang Gold and Lead (600531.SS), to keep operating, the China Daily reported over the weekend.
"The local government has been trying to stop us getting blood tests and making it public. They just want to protect the plant, which pays a great deal of tax every year," said Huang Zhengmin. His 5-year-old grandson’s blood tests showed nearly 500 micrograms of lead per litre, about 50 times the acceptable level in the United States.
"They don’t care about the life and death of us ordinary people. So the whole village has to be relocated to make way for the plant. The pollution just carries on."
Lead smelters around the world have shut due to pollution fears, allowing the industry to blossom in China. Lead prices MPB3 spiked to their highest point this year in early September, when the Jiyuan plant closures were first announced.
After the people move, the smelters will rent their land and plant trees to serve as a barrier protecting nearby villages, the report said. Some people would move to a site about 4 kilometres (2.5 miles) away, it said.
"The question isn’t whether or not you plant trees, it’s whether there are people there or not," said Lin Jingxing, who studies cancer villages at the Chinese Academy of Geological Science. A thorough investigation of soil, water and wind patterns is needed to show how far is far enough, he added.
"Moving people is the simplest solution, especially if you can locate another place free of pollution. The cost of mitigating pollution is very high."
He wasn’t aware of any successful cases of moving people away, mostly because of the difficulty of finding new land for them to farm and meeting the cost of building new homes.
The Jiyuan cases came to light in the late summer, when parents of children with high lead and cadmium levels also protested at a smelter in Shaanxi province owned by the Dongling Group, China’s fourth-largest zinc producer, and at a metals smelter in Hunan province.
A child exposed to heavy concentrations of lead can develop anaemia, muscle weakness and brain damage.
"We read on the Internet that the effects of lead poisoning are irreversible. ‘Irreversible’ is a medical term I don’t quite understand, but I assume it means children affected by lead poisoning will never be as healthy as before," said Li Lei, father of a 15-month-old boy who tested for high lead levels.
"I am worried sick. I am worried about the after-effects on my child. He is the future of our family."
Adults, especially workers at lead plants, suffer severe fatigue, loss of appetite and pain. Chinese authorities have not tested people over 14 living near the smelters. (Additional reporting by Chris Buckley; Editing by Bill Tarrant)