October 13, 2009 / 10:42 AM / 10 years ago

Top China lead smelter acknowledges poisoning role

BEIJING (Reuters) - China’s largest lead smelting firm has acknowledged partial responsibility after nearly 1,000 children living near some of China’s biggest lead plants showed excessive levels of lead in their blood, the Xinhua news agency said on Tuesday.

Some plants and production lines in Jiyuan, Henan Province, have been suspended since the poisoning of children living near smelters in other provinces became public in late August, triggering protests by parents in several regions. The area is home to China’s biggest cluster of lead smelters.

“We do bear responsibility for the pollution,” Xinhua quoted Yang Anguo, board chairman of Yuguang Gold and Lead as saying. “Some pollution has accumulated over the past 20 years or more and the plant is too near homes.”

Blood tests showed 968 children — out of 2,743 tested — under 14 living near three major smelters had high levels of lead in their blood, Xinhua said, citing Wei Zongchang, director of the Jiyuan health bureau.

“Mass incidents” — or riots and protests — sparked by environmental problems have been rising at a rate of 30 percent per year, according to China’s environment minister.

At the same time, the boom in metals prices has made investment in mines and smelters very profitable, and dangerously polluting plants have sprung up across the Chinese countryside. Local officials, who worry about losing a large taxpayer and employer and may even have a stake in the projects, often turn a blind eye to safety and environmental violations.

A child who ingests large amounts of lead may develop anemia, muscle weakness and brain damage. Where poisoning occurs, it is usually gradual. The average level of lead in the blood of Chinese children is five times the acceptable level in the United States, according to statistics from the China Daily.

Jiyuan officials cited by Xinhua attributed the poisoning to past accumulation of lead due to decades of smelting.

Yuguang, as well as Wanyang Lead and Jinli Lead, each closed a 50,000-tonne-a-year designed sintering smelting capacity since August 24, officials said last month. The plants had been operating above their designed capacity, bringing their combined operating capacity to nearly 240,000 tonnes a year.

Authorities had also shut 32 small refined lead producers in the area, after children living near a lead and zinc smelter owned by Dongling Group in Shaanxi province also tested for high lead levels.

Lead prices spiked to their highest point this year in early September, when the Jiyuan plant closures were first announced.

Editing by Jonathan Leff

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