REUTERS - Chinese protesters broke into a smelting works they blame for the lead poisoning of hundreds of children, smashing trucks and tearing down fences, state news agency Xinhua said on Monday.
More than 600 children living near the Dongling metal smelter, in northwest China, were found to have dangerous amounts of the heavy metal in their blood, and 154 are so sick they have been admitted to hospital, the report added.
Rumours were also spreading in one nearby village that a teenager had tried to commit suicide by drinking pesticide after blood tests showed excessive lead levels, Xinhua said.
Ma Jiaojiao, who like other victims lived near the plant, was diagnosed with a concentration of lead in her blood four times the recommended maximum safe level of 100 micrograms a litre.
She had paid for a blood test herself because she was over 14 years old, the government cut-off for free tests, Xinhua said. Its reporters could not reach her family and neighbours said Ma had been sent to hospital in nearby Baoji city.
The lead poisoning scandal emerged last week, after worried parents took their children for medical tests.
All the affected families live near the Changqing industrial park in Shaanxi province. The county government was supposed to help relocate villagers living close by in 2006, but the plan is running far behind schedule.
The 100,000-tonne lead and zinc plant suspected of causing the poisoning is run by China's fourth-biggest zinc producer Dongling Group. A company source told Reuters it had been shut for repairs since late July and it was unclear when production would resume. Xinhua said operations were suspended on Aug. 6.
China's pollution and lax product safety standards have long been a source of tension and unrest, particularly when residents of pollution hotspots -- dubbed "cancer villages" because of high disease rates -- feel they are being ignored.
A child who swallows large amounts of lead may develop anaemia, muscle weakness and brain damage. Where poisoning occurs, it is usually gradual.
Cases involving children are particularly sensitive in a country where many families have only one son or daughter. China was shaken last year by a tainted milk scandal, which killed at least six children and made tens of thousands of others ill.
Dongling is still running two other zinc lines in a separate area of Shaanxi province, with combined annual capacity of 150,000 tonnes.