SHANGHAI (Reuters) - A China battery unit of Johnson Controls was ordered to halt production by the government after the plant was linked to incidents of lead contamination in Shanghai that had sickened some children.
Shanghai Johnson Controls International Battery Co came under the spotlight after children in the Kangqiao area of Shanghai were found to have ultra-high levels of lead in their blood during medical checks.
A thorough investigation has found that Shanghai Johnson Controls is the main polluter in the region and the plant was ordered to suspend production, the Shanghai Environment Production Bureau said in a statement posted on its website over the weekend.
Johnson Controls, which previously denied any link to the lead pollution citing an independent study, insisted that its Shanghai plant was operating in line with Chinese environmental rules.
"Based on all available facts, Johnson Controls disagrees with any interpretation linking our plant's operation to elevated lead exposure in the Kangqiao area," the U.S. lead-acid battery maker said in a statement on its website.
The Chinese government has been stepping up efforts against pollution amid rising health awareness among its people and a series of scandals related to environmental protection and food safety.
In July, environment group Greenpeace accused some of the world's leading clothing brands of relying on Chinese suppliers that pollute rivers with toxic, hormone-disrupting chemicals banned in Europe and elsewhere.
Chinese environmental groups also accused Apple Inc of turning a blind eye as its suppliers pollute the country.
Shanghai Mayor Han Zheng has vowed this week to adopt the highest standards and the toughest legal punishment against pollution, and in January, Beijing began offering additional data on air quality amid a public outcry over the city's air pollution.
Citing an independent study, Johnson Controls in November denied that its Shanghai plant caused the lead pollution that residents in Kangqiao said sickened 49 children.
The study, conducted by the China Electric Equipment Industry Association exonerated Johnson Controls and found an abnormally high zone of lead content from a garbage recycling plant near the residential area where 80 percent of the poisoned children lived, Johnson Controls said at the time.
However, the Shanghai environment regulator said over the weekend that Shanghai Johnson Controls was the main lead emitter in the region, citing conclusions from experts.
"Johnson Controls has a long-term commitment to China," Johnson Controls said.
"We will continue to work with the government in a transparent and cooperative manner focusing on scientifically assessing the environmental issues in Kangqiao while responding to the needs of the community, our employees and our customers."
(Reporting by Samuel Shen and Jacqueline Wong)