BEIJING — Lead pollution from a newly opened and unlicensed manganese smelter has poisoned more than 1,300 children in southeastern China’s Hunan Province, state-run media said on Thursday, the second case of mass lead poisoning in the past month.
Officials in Wenping, 970 miles south of Beijing, shut down the smelter, the Wugang Fine-Processed Manganese Smelting Factory, last week and detained two of its owners after about 1,000 local residents protested the poisoning, the English-language state newspaper China Daily reported.
The plant’s general manager remained at large.
Tests subsequently found elevated levels of lead in the blood of 1,354 children, or about 7 in 10 children who were examined, the official news agency, Xinhua, reported. The severity of the poisoning cannot be measured without further testing; 17 of the 83 children who received the advanced tests were hospitalized.
Lead poisoning damages the nervous and reproductive systems and can permanently cripple children’s growth and intellectual development.
The report of poisoning in Wugang followed a similar case in Shaanxi Province, in north-central China, where state news reports say 851 children living near the nation’s fourth-largest smelter have tested positive for lead poisoning since early August. More than 170 have since been hospitalized.
Angry residents of two Shaanxi villages were reported on Monday to have marched to the smelter, tearing down fences and attacking trucks before police officers restored order.
Local officials have promised that the smelter, which produces lead and zinc, will not reopen until it meets pollution standards.
On Wednesday, The Associated Press reported that the Shaanxi smelter, which is in the town of Changqing, was under heavy guard by police and plainclothes officers. The officers sought to interrupt journalists’ interviews with local residents.
Pollution is a serious problem across China, where breakneck industrial development has fouled both air and water to sometimes extraordinary degrees.
Although the national government has committed to clean-up measures, the World Bank says 59 percent of the water in China’s seven major rivers is unfit to drink, and the government says the air in about a quarter of cities is unhealthy.
The Wugang manganese smelter is in one of China’s major iron and steel centers. Manganese is often added to steel to increase its tensile strength. According to Xinhua, seven other smelters also operate in Wugang City, an area of about 700,000 residents that includes Wenping town.
Wugang City’s deputy environment chief, Huang Wenbin, was quoted by Xinhua as saying the smelter opened in May 2008 without required environmental permits. Other news reports said it began producing manganese about a year ago.
A kindergarten and a primary and middle school are within 1,700 feet of the smelter, Xinhua said.
Residents were reported to have raised questions about the smelter in July after their children began falling ill and refusing to eat.
On Aug. 8, about 1,000 residents blocked a road to the plant, leading to a confrontation with 200 officials and police officers.
The protesters overturned a police car before calm was restored, China Daily reported.
The plant was ordered closed on Aug. 13.