Beijing - A top Chinese official has blamed the rising number of birth defects in the country to China's increasingly polluted environment.
Every 30 seconds, a baby is born in China with physical defects, the China Daily quoted him as saying at a conference here recently.
'The number of newborns with birth defects is constantly increasing in both urban and rural areas,' said Mr Jiang Fan, vice-director of the National Population and Family Planning Commission (NPFPC).
All because of the polluted environment, he added.
'The rather alarming increase has forced us to kick off a high-level prevention plan,' he said,
Mr Jiang was referring to programmes that the commission started in 2007 to give guidance to expecting parents.
These include free pre-pregnancy checks that were introduced in the eight provinces that have the highest rate of birth defects.
Late that year, Mr Jiang had first warned about China's record rate of defective newborns. He raised the issue again last month to emphasise that the problem remains serious.
But it was the first time that the official incontrovertibly linked the problem to environmental pollution in China, which is home to 16 of the world's 20 dirtiest cities.
Ms Li Bin, the director of the NPFPC, also recently announced that the government will provide free pre-pregnancy health screenings to all mothers-to-be.
That means the service will be made available outside the eight provinces that it is currently provided in.
Some 800,000 to 1.2 million babies are born with defects each year in China. That accounts for 4 to 6 per cent of births, according to government statistics.
The number of infants born with defects include 20,000 with congenital heart diseases. About 100,000 others suffer from neurological defects, 50,000 have cleft lip and 30,000 have Down's syndrome.
According to medical professor Hu Yali of Nanjing University, environmental pollution, including dirty air, accounts for '10 per cent of the causes' of physical defects in Chinese infants.
'Our research shows that chemical waste pollution has been the main factor to influence the health of pregnant women and their babies in some areas,' she was quoted as saying by Takungpao.com.
Northern China's coal-rich Shanxi province, a centre of noxious emissions from large-scale chemical industries, has recorded the highest rate of birth defects, the NPFPC said.
'The problem of birth defects is related to environmental pollution, especially in eight main coal zones,' said Mr An Huanxiao, director of Shanxi's family planning agency.
Professor Pan Jianping of Xian city's Jiaotong University warned that the increasing rate of birth defects would soon become a social problem, affecting economic development and the quality of life.
He said: 'Economic pressure is very heavy for families raising babies with physical defects, particularly for those who live in poor rural areas.'
[At least they are admitting the problem instead of denying and covering up. But it will still be a long while before they solve the problem.]