Foul waste emitted by one of China's biggest drug makers has become the latest target in a widening campaign to crack down on the country's severe pollution problems.
Harbin Pharmaceutical Group in northern China said Thursday it is rushing to upgrade its equipment and reduce discharges from its antibiotics factories after drawing intense criticism in national media for a stench residents have been complaining about for years.
China has been stepping up efforts to close down or clean up heavily polluting industries that have left many communities contaminated with heavy metals and other pollutants.
Reports by the state-run national television and major newspapers said levels of hydrogen sulfide gas near Harbin Pharmaceutical's factories were found to be over 1,000 times the legal limit while ammonia levels were 20 times the allowed limit.
The chemicals largely resulted from the fermentation process used to make penicillin, they said.
Exposure to hydrogen sulfide, which smells like rotten eggs and is also known as swamp gas, can be fatal in high concentrations. It causes skin irritation and breathing problems in lower concentrations and is highly flammable.
"There is no excuse for allowing such waste emissions and there is no trump card for evading responsibility," the Communist Party newspaper People's Daily said in a sharply worded commentary that took local authorities to task for failing to curb the problems when they surfaced back in 2004.
Harbin city government officials refused comment on the situation.
The barrage of criticism for what the local media have dubbed "pollution gate" followed reports earlier this week that authorities were investigating a chemicals factory whose discharges of some 10 toxic materials were blamed for tainting water supplies to parts of Hangzhou, a city of 9 million people west of Shanghai.
Harbin Pharmaceutical issued a notice Thursday to the Shanghai Stock Exchange acknowledging the complaints and confirming it was cutting production in some of its facilities while it resolves the problems.
The company said it had invested 400 million yuan (about $62 million) in clean technology and pollution control equipment. Results from its latest sampling of the affected areas, conducted this week, were not yet available, it said.
The company, which employs more than 20,000 people, said it would make up for any shortfalls in production of penicillin and cephalosporin with purchases from other drug makers.