China To Crack Down On Lead, Other Toxic Metals

China is cracking down on emissions of lead and other heavy metals following a spate of poisoning cases and reports that much of the country's soil is contaminated.

SHANGHAI (AP) -- China is cracking down on emissions of lead and other heavy metals following a spate of poisoning cases and reports that much of the country's soil is contaminated with toxic materials.

Rules seen Thursday on the website of the Ministry of Environmental Protection order criminal penalties for businesses and local officials who violate restrictions on use of the toxins. They were announced after dozens of children living near a battery plant in southern China's Guangdong province were reported sickened by lead poisoning.

In regions already affected by severe lead pollution, authorities were ordered to suspend environmental impact assessments and approvals of any more projects, the official Xinhua News Agency cited ministry spokesman Tao Detian as saying.

China is belatedly confronting a crisis of heavy metals poisoning after years of allowing manufacturers to disregard safety standards. The country has reported hundreds of pollution emergencies in recent years, many involving lead.

An explosion in the use of electric scooters and the rapid growth of car manufacturing have driven soaring demand for lead acid batteries, but the mining, smelting, making and disposal of the lead and the batteries has been laxly controlled.

Such trends have added to already pervasive contamination due to the heavy reliance on coal, which supplies three-quarters of China's electric power.

Thousands of children were affected by lead poisoning in several provinces in 2009 and 2010 because they lived near metal smelters or battery factories. Combined with scandals over contaminated foods and milk, the issue has taken on urgency for government leaders who have promised to deliver more sustainable, people-oriented economic growth.

The latest crackdown follows reports that 44 children and at least one adult living near a battery plant in Guangdong's Zijin county had excessive lead in their blood, Xinhua reported Thursday, citing provincial officials. The levels were as high as 600 micrograms per liter; the national limit is 100 micrograms per liter.

Initial checks had found only a three cases among 199 people tested, but angry local residents rented a bus to travel to the Guangzhou Children's Hospital, in the provincial capital, for blood tests that found far more were affected, the Hong Kong newspaper South China Morning Post reported.

The Sunnyway Battery Co.'s factory in Zijin was ordered to stop production due to suspicions it lacked adequate emissions controls and also did not have the authority to produce dangerous materials.

On Monday, the boss of a battery plant in eastern China's Zhejiang province, west of Shanghai, was detained after more than 300 people, including 99 children, were found in late April to have been sickened by lead pollution, the government says.

Fifty-three people were hospitalized.

Lead poisoning can damage the nervous, muscular and reproductive systems, and children are particularly at risk.

Government plans call for reducing levels of the contaminants by 15 percent from 2007 levels by 2015 and for increasing oversight of more than 4,400 companies, the financial magazine Caixin recently reported, citing ministry officials.

The main focus would be on lead, mercury, chromium, cadmium and arsenic, it said.

Associated Press researcher Fu Ting contributed to this report.
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