BEIJING (AP) -- Chinese officials said Wednesday they are investigating heightened lead levels among hundreds of children in Hunan province thought to be linked to local smelters -- one of many cases underscoring the toll pollution is taking on the health of rural Chinese.
Health checks last month showed excessive levels of lead in the blood samples of 254 out of 397 children under age 14 living in three villages closest to the factories in Hunan's Jiahe county, a county government spokesman said.
He said four had levels high enough to be classified as lead poisoning, a condition that can harm the nervous and reproductive systems and cause high blood pressure and anemia. In severe cases, it can lead to convulsions, coma and death.
The spokesman, who declined to give his name as is common among low-level Chinese officials, said additional details would be provided in a news release being prepared.
However, media reports said the contamination had been traced to lead smelters and battery factories in the poor, mountainous region that were built without environmental impact assessments being first carried out.
Hundreds were not inspected at all last year and while many had previously been ordered closed, local officials -- who rely on the factories for tax revenue -- allowed them to reopen.
Reports of lead poisoning have emerged from far-flung parts of China since last year, usually rural areas wtandards, the newspaper said. Sulfur dioxide it produced by melting down scrap metal had also been blamed for killing trees in local forests, it said.
Industrial waste has gained more attention in recent years as the economic costs and effects of long-term exposure on residents begin to emerge. Pollution in rivers has in several cases forced the closure of hydropower plants and the cutoff of water supplies to millions of people.