At least one person died and hundreds fell ill in central China from drinking tap water tainted by a chemical leak, local hospitals said Thursday, amid reports over 1,000 people may have been poisoned.
Government officials in the county of Chenxi in Hunan province have acknowledged the leak from a chemical factory, saying 26 people had been poisoned, the Beijing News reported.
But local hospital staff told AFP several dozen had been treated, while the newspaper quoted hospitals and local residents saying more than 1,000 had been poisoned.
"We have 70-80 patients at our hospital at the moment, but during the day, we get about 700 to 800 people a day arriving with the symptoms," a staffer at the Chenxi People's Hospital, who gave only his surname Zhang, told AFP by phone.
"This is due to sulfuric acid poisoning from the local factory."
The man added most sufferers had only light symptoms.
However, a doctor surnamed Li at the Chinese Medicine Hospital told AFP one person had died at that hospital, which now has about three dozen sufferers hospitalised.
The source of the chemical leak has been identified as the Xiaoping chemical plant in the town of Banqiao, it said.
The problem first came to light in early December, when a retired coal miner discovered that his tap water had turned yellow, the report said, quoting an unnamed victim of the poisoning.
The local government later in the month pronounced the area's water safe to drink. But about 10 days ago, growing numbers of local villagers began to fall ill with what hospital staff initially described as flu-like or leukaemia symptoms.
Others had inflamed throats or paralysis.
As more people began arriving at hospitals the local government began to investigate and found the water contaminated with arsenic, tantalum and other dangerous chemicals, it said.
AFP requests for comment from the local government on Thursday were denied.
Chemical spills with serious health consequences are not uncommon in China.
In one of the worst recent examples, a massive chemical plant spill into northeastern China's Songhua River resulted in drinking supplies for millions of residents of Heilongjiang province being cut.