China has acknowledged an alarming rise in birth defects, amid concern that heavy pollution is damaging the country’s children.

Babies born with conditions such as cleft palates and extra fingers and toes now account for up to 6 per cent of births each year, according to statistics published yesterday.

And the number of babies born with disabilities has increased by 40 per cent since 2001 – a period that has coincided with China’s meteoric economic growth – to between two and three million a year. Up to 12 million more develop defects in childhood.

There is evidence that China’s fast-decaying environment is taking its toll. The proportion of babies born with disabilities is even higher in the country’s coal-rich regions, where mining has devastated the landscape and poisoned rivers and valleys.

An Huanxiao, director of the family planning agency in the coal-rich northern province of Shanxi, had few doubts. “The incidence of birth defects is related to environmental pollution. The survey’s statistics show that birth defects in Shanxi’s eight large coalmining regions are far above the national average.”