September 16, 2009

SHANGHAI (AP) — Three people have died and an additional 17 required medical treatment after they were exposed to bags of a toxic chemical illegally dumped by a factory in eastern China, the local government said Wednesday.

Four of the people sickened were children who played near the chemical, 2,4-dinitrophenol -- a poison used in scientific research and in manufacturing various chemicals, explosives and pesticides, according to a statement by the government in Dongyang, a city 250 kilometers (160 miles) southwest of Shanghai.

The case is typical of many in China, where local enforcement of safety standards remains lax despite repeated pledges by the central government to ensure better controls.

Investigators were holding four people alleged to be responsible for the poisonings, which occurred Sunday, and city officials pledged to tighten waste disposal controls.

A preliminary probe found that chemicals were dumped into plastic bags by a local chemicals factory and illegally passed on to a garbage collector, who then sold the bags to another waste collector. The three people killed were all transporting the bags when they fell ill, the government statement said.

It was unclear why the waste collectors bought the chemicals or if they knew what was in the bags. But migrants scraping out a livelihood by selling waste to the country's thriving recycling industry scrounge for whatever they can find, without any protective gear or other safety precautions.

Although four of the injured required intensive care, the condition of all 17 was "basically stabilized," the Dongyang government said.

Control of hazardous chemicals is a chronic problem in China, where workshops and factories have sprung up all over the countryside. City officials usually have a vested interest in protecting local businesses, and public safety awareness is scant.

Decades of breakneck industrialization has left many areas polluted with chemicals and heavy metals dumped by factories that dumped waste and effluent with impunity.

But officials face growing public anger over safety scandals in which children have often suffered most, such as the recent discovery of clusters of severe lead poisoning involving hundreds of children.