A child who was diagnosed with having excessive lead in his blood cries as he receives medical treatment at a hospital in Hefei

Shanghai - China's environmental protection ministry is cracking down on pollution caused by lead and other heavy metals following a spate of poisoning cases and reports that much of the country is contaminated with toxic materials.

The new rules were announced after dozens of children living near a battery plant in southern China's Guangdong province were reported sickened by lead poisoning.

Businesses and local officials will face criminal penalties for violations of the stricter rules, seen Thursday on the ministry's website.

In regions already affected by severe lead pollution, authorities were ordered to suspend environmental impact assessment and approvals, the official Xinhua News Agency cited ministry spokesman Tao Detian as saying.

China is belatedly confronting a crisis of heavy metals poisoning after years of allowing manufacturers to disregard safety standards. The country has reported hundreds of pollution emergencies in recent years, many involving heavy metal contamination.

An explosion in the use of electric scooters and rapid growth of car manufacturing have driven soaring demand for lead acid batteries, but the smelting, making and disposal of the lead and the batteries has been laxly controlled.

Thousands of children were affected by lead poisoning in several provinces in 2009 and 2010 because they lived near metal smelters or battery factories.

The latest crackdown follows reports that 44 children and at least one adult living near a battery plant in Guangdong's Zijin county had excessive lead in their blood, the official Xinhua News Agency reported Thursday, citing provincial officials. The levels were as high as 600 micrograms per litre; the national limit is 100 micrograms per liter.

This month, Sunnyway Battery's factory in Zijin was ordered to stop production due to suspicions it lacked adequate emissions controls and also did not have authority to produce dangerous materials.

On Monday, the boss of a battery plant in eastern China's Zhejiang province, west of Shanghai, was detained after more than 300 people, including 99 children, were found in late April to have been sickened by lead pollution, the government says.

Fifty-three people were rushed to hospital after tests found that 332 residents in Deqing, most of them workers at a factory making lead-acid motorcycle batteries, or their family members, had elevated levels of lead in their blood. About half those affected were children.

Lead poisoning can damage the nervous, muscular and reproductive systems, and children are particularly at risk. - Sapa-AP