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Lead poisoning scandals highlight China's lack of oversight

Parents protest as tests show more than 2,000 children affected. Two new cases show that pollution regulations are often not enforced.

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A child is treated for lead poisoning Friday at a hospital in Changsha, Hunan province, China. The government has detained two factory officials after 1,300 children living near a manganese smelting plant in the province were found to have drastically elevated levels of lead in their blood. The case comes days after tests determined that pollution from a lead smelter in another province has sickened hundreds.

Andy Wong/AP

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Two lead poisoning scandals that have recently sickened more than 2,000 Chinese children point to the ignorance, the push for profits and jobs, and lax government oversight behind much of China's pollution.

In two separate lead poisoning cases to come to light this month, children living and going to school in the shadow of smelters belching toxic fumes have been found to have up to ten times the amount of lead in their blood considered safe in China.

"Factory owners pursue maximum profit for very little investment," says Zhang Zhengjie, a researcher at the Environmental Science Research Institute in the industrial city of Shenyang. "Very few equip their factories with environmental protection equipment."

Though this is especially true of small plants, one of the offending smelters now in the public eye, in Changqing, Shaanxi Province, is the fourth largest in the country.

Local officials were keen to attract the company, which began operations in 2006, because of the revenue it generated. The plant contributed 17 percent to the county's GDP, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency. Though the county government pledged to relocate nearly 600 families living within 500 yards of the factory, it has moved only a quarter of them so far.

Protesting pollution

Angry neighbors smashed vehicles and tore down fencing around the plant Monday, after tests showed that nearly 70 percent of their children suffered from excessive levels of lead in their blood.

The disturbance was the latest in a frequently occurring series of "mass incidents" protesting the ill effects of pollution in China.

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