A lead and zinc plant was found to be the main source of lead poisoning that sickened more than 600 children in northwestern China, prompting an apology from a company official to residents, a state news agency reported on Sunday.
Tests by environmental officials found a higher than normal lead content in the air around the Dongling Lead and Zinc Smelting Co. in Changqing, a township in Shaanxi province, the official Xinhua News Agency said.
The report did not say if the plant, which belongs to Dongling Group, one of the biggest private companies in Shaanxi province, would be punished for the contamination.
At least 615 out of 731 children living in two villages near the smelter tested positive for lead poisoning, which can damage the nervous and reproductive systems, cause high blood pressure, anemia, memory loss, and, in extreme cases, cause victims to fall into comas and die.
The report cited Han Qinyou, a local head of the environmental protection monitoring station, as saying lead content in the air along the main roads near the factory was 6.3 times that of sites located 380 yards (350 meters) away.
Xinhua quoted Han as saying in a press conference Saturday that tests showed the groundwater, surface water, soil and company's waste discharge "met national standards."
But Han also said other possible factors for lead poisoning should not be ruled out, such as auto exhaust, diet and living habits, Xinhua said, without elaborating.
Calls to the environmental protection bureau and smelting company rang unanswered on Sunday.
Zhao Weiping, a deputy Communist Party secretary of the Dongling Group, apologized to local residents and pledged to cooperate with authorities in helping to treat the sickened children and work to meet environmental standards, Xinhua said.
Of the sickened children, 166 will be hospitalized and the remainder will receive at-home treatment to remove the lead from their bodies, according to Xinhua.
Factory accidents and chemical leaks are common in China and are often blamed on lax enforcement of environmental regulations and safety rules and poor worker training.