BEIJING (AP) -- China needs to work harder to fight heavy metal pollution following the recent discovery of clusters of severe lead poisoning involving hundreds of children, the country's environment minister said Thursday.
More than 1,300 children in central Hunan province, 200 in Yunnan province and at least 615 in northern Shaanxi province tested positive for lead poisoning in the last month. Lead poisoning can damage the nervous and reproductive systems and cause high blood pressure and memory loss.
"Pollution from chemicals such as mercury, chromium, cadmium, lead and arsenic and other metals have become increasingly prominent, seriously endangering the health of local citizens and resulting in adverse social impacts," Environment Minister Zhou Shengxian told a national conference on pollution prevention.
Zhou said China needs to step up efforts to prevent heavy metal pollution and react swiftly to any cases found, according to a report posted on the Ministry of Environmental Protection Web site. He did not give details.
Although the government has made progress on environmental protection in recent years, Zhou said the situation remains grim because breakneck economic development has led to long-term accumulation of pollution and new environmental problems are emerging.
Earlier this week, the ministry posted a memo on its Web site encouraging the "improvement of national environmental monitoring capabilities," including heavy metal emissions and other pollutants.
Anger is growing in China over public safety scandals in which children have been the main victims. The ruling Communist Party is worried mass protests will threaten the country's social stability and challenge its grip on power.
China's rapid economic growth has caused serious environmental problems. For decades, many companies dumped poisons into rivers and the ground, counting on the acquiescence of local governments unwilling to damage their economic lifelines.