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Battery maker, Shanghai clash over cause of lead poisonings

SHANGHAI -- As Shanghai authorities and major battery maker Johnson Controls clash over what caused a spate of lead poisoning cases, families of the dozens of children recovering from the contamination are fretting over future risks from the heavy metal.

Shanghai has prohibited the U.S. battery maker from resuming lead-processing at its automotive battery plant in the city's outskirts following a probe that blames the company for excess lead emissions.

Johnson Controls Inc. on Monday disputed the findings, pointing to an independent investigation commissioned by an industry group that found the lead acid car battery plant was not emitting excess lead.

A spokesman for the Environmental Protection Bureau in Shanghai's Pudong district, Ju Chunfang, said Monday that the company could resume production, which halted last September when its lead quota for the year was exhausted.

But he said, “No more lead related production is allowed.”

The Shanghai government report asserts that Johnson Controls' factory, as the biggest lead processing operation in the area, must be the cause of the poisonings.

The report also singled out two other companies, another, smaller battery maker and a recycling facility. The earlier, independent probe had identified the recycling plant as the main cause of contamination for the Kanghua New Village compound, where at least 49 children were found sickened by lead.

Families say their children are still recovering from elevated blood lead levels, which even at lower levels can harm a child's brain, reducing IQ and causing learning and behavioral problems. High levels of contamination can cause coma, convulsions or even death.

Hu Qinghua's 4-year-old daughter Yilin, the first child found to have elevated blood lead in Kanghua New Village, a compound about 600 meters (about 2,000 feet) from the battery factory, falls ill more easily than before, Hu said.

Battery factories are not the only culprits: China's state media carried reports Monday of dozens of new cases of lead poisoning in children in two other regions: Guangdong and Guangxi, mainly from lead smelters.

Alex Molinaroli, president of Johnson Controls Power Solutions, said in a phone interview from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, that the company's Pudong factory was not emitting excess lead.

Johnson Controls has insisted all along that its plant's emission controls would have prevented any significant contamination. It says emissions were about one-seventh of the Chinese national standard and that employees were frequently tested to ensure their blood lead levels remained with safe limits.

Molinaroli contends the Shanghai authorities have failed to identify the real cause of the lead poisoning.

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