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Safety questioned as China plant blast death hit 71

SHANGHAI -- The death toll from an explosion at a Taiwan-invested car parts factory in China climbed to 71 on Sunday, state media said, as a labor rights group cast doubt on its safety measures.

The blast on Saturday in a wheel hub-polishing workshop at the Zhongrong Metal Products Co. in Kunshan, near Shanghai, also left 186 injured, state television said, many with severe burns and respiratory problems.

The death toll, announced by city officials at a news conference on Sunday, rose as more bodies were discovered in the partly destroyed factory, it said.

The firm manufactured for car companies, including U.S. giant General Motors (GM).

Kunshan's mayor Lu Jun on Saturday classified the incident as a “severe” industrial accident, which a preliminary investigation showed was caused by the ignition of powder or dust from the production process.

Authorities have detained five company officials, the People's Daily newspaper reported. City officials said earlier that the executives responsible had been placed under control, but gave no number or names.

China has a dismal industrial safety record as some owners evade regulations to save money and pay off corrupt officials to look the other way.

U.S.-based China Labor Watch, a workers' rights group, said proper measures could have prevented the accident.

“Safety measures like ventilation systems should have prevented such accumulation of dust particles. This tragedy is a result of lax safety standards in the workplace,” it said in a statement.

Dust suspended in the air in the right concentration can cause explosions, according to safety experts, with even materials that do not normally burn in larger pieces becoming explosive in certain conditions.

Kunshan, in the eastern province of Jiangsu and known as a center for Taiwanese investment in China, was unable to handle the number of injured, with many sent to hospitals in surrounding areas including Shanghai.

A doctor treating the injured said this type of burn, caused by an explosion, presented special challenges to treat.

“We have to think about infection,” the doctor from Shanghai's Ruijin Hospital told state television.

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