China Chemical Plant Leak Sickens 500

BEIJING (AP) -- More than 500 villagers in central China have been found to have high concentrations of a dangerous metal in their bodies after a series of leaks from a chemical plant, state media reported Monday.

Of the nearly 3,000 villagers living near the Changsha Xianghe Chemical Plant in Hunan province's Zhentou township, 509 people were found to have high concentrations of cadmium and 33 were hospitalized over the weekend, according to the official Xinhua News Agency. Cadmium is used to make batteries.

The chemicals may have been leaking for months before two villagers, since found to have excessive levels of cadmium, died in May and June.

Two senior environmental officials were suspended and the head of the chemical plant was detained Saturday. That followed protests last week by nearly 1,000 residents complaining that deadly pollutants were being discharged from the factory into water that irrigates rice and vegetable fields, according to Xinhua.

Calls to the Liuyang city government office rang unanswered late Monday.

Factory accidents and chemical leaks are common in China, in part because of lax enforcement of proper worker training and safety rules.

Exposure to large amounts of cadmium can cause failure of the central nervous system and lungs, lead to severe brain damage and in some cases, cause death.

China's waterways, especially its major rivers, are dangerously polluted after decades of rapid economic growth and poor enforcement of pollution controls.

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