Every 30 seconds, a baby is born with physical defects in China, all thanks to the country's degrading environment, an official of the National Population and Family Planning Commission (NPFPC) has said.
"The number of newborns with birth defects is constantly increasing in both urban and rural areas," Jiang Fan, vice-minister of the NPFPC said at a conference in Beijing recently. "And the rather alarming increase has forced us to kick off a high-level prevention plan."
She said that "more than half" of the pregnancies in the country had benefited from the commission's scientific guidance since 2007.
A free pre-pregnant examination program has covered eight provinces with the highest rate of birth defects, she said, refusing to divulge further details.
"The government must take measures to prevent birth defects," Li Bin, minister of the NPFPC said.
According to Hu Yali, a professor at the Affiliated Drum Tower Hospital of Nanjing University, environmental pollution accounts for "10 percent 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 having said by Takungpao.com.
China's coal-rich Shanxi province, a center of noxious emissions from large-scale chemical industries, has recorded the highest rate of birth defects, NPFPC said.
"The problem of birth defects is related to environmental pollution, especially in eight main coal zones," said An Huanxiao, the director of Shanxi provincial family planning agency.
Researchers also linked the high rate of birth defects in the country to air pollution.
If pregnant women are exposed to air pollution, it increases the risk of giving birth to under-weight infants, said a study conducted by Yale University.
"The higher the level of exposure to nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide and particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10), the greater is the risk of having low-weight babies," it said.
Environmental exposure to specific combustion pollutants during pregnancy can result in chromosomal abnormalities in fetal tissues, according to another research done by the Columbia University Center for Children's Environmental Health.
Pan Jianping, a professor of the Women and Child Health Research Office under Xi'an Jiaotong University, warned that the increasing rate of birth defects among Chinese infants would soon become a social problem, which "will influence economic development and the quality of life".
"Economic pressure is very heavy for families raising babies with physical defects, particularly for those who live in poor rural areas," he said, adding that the families also have to cope with psychological trauma due to the social stigma attached to abnormal children.
Bad living habits, unbalanced nutritional diets, and old-age pregnancies are also possible factors that cause birth defects in newborns, he said.