Safety down the tube

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 March, 2012, 12:00am


Lying on the hospital bed, Chen Xilong stared blankly at passers-by. His eyes were dull. He tried to move his head but was too weak. When tested on his ability to calculate, he could add one-digit numbers. But when asked a simple calculation - 'how much is two times two?' - he could not answer. He couldn't sit up or eat by himself. He wore adult diapers.

Chen, 23, had been a migrant worker in a leatherware factory in Guangzhou. For more than a month he has lain in this bed in Guangzhou No12 Hospital - the city's occupational disease prevention and treatment hospital - after 10 days in the intensive care unit. Doctors say the Chongqing native suffers from acute intoxication by 1.2-dichloroethane, a toxic compound also known as ethylene dichloride.

Thirty other patients were on the same floor of the hospital where Chen lay, all poisoned by inhaling dichloroethane from glues used in small factories in Guangzhou, where they made leather goods - belts, shoes, wallets, bags and suitcases. Most of the victims were admitted between September and January.

Guangzhou Production Safety Administration found that businesses were using glues containing outrageously large percentages of the poisonous 1.2-dichloroethane, some as much as 60 per cent. The national limit is half a per cent.

Four people had died of 1.2-dichlorethane poisoning since September and 40 others were severely stricken in Guangzhou, said Liu Yimin, the hospital's vice-director.

Most of the victims were sent to Guangzhou No 12 Hospital.

'We have confirmed 35 cases of 1.2-dichloroethane poisoning since November, among which 26 have been confirmed as occupational diseases,' Liu said. 'Of the 26 cases, 25 people had been severely poisoned, with one still in the intensive care unit and in a critical condition.'

These surviving patients, most of them migrant workers, are extreme examples of a distressing reality on the mainland: too many workplaces are dangerous to workers' health.

The Ministry of Health reported 27,240 new cases of occupational diseases in 2010. Poisoning was the second-most prevalent occupational disease, following pneumoconiosis, a lung disease. The ministry counted 617 cases of acute poisoning and 1,417 cases of chronic poisoning.

It is hard to tell how widespread the glue-poisoning cases are, Liu said. The 39 poisoned workers were from 33 factories, mostly small, unregistered workshops in residences owned and built by farmers on the outskirts of Guangzhou.

A glue-industry expert told the Guangzhou Daily that most of these small workshops used 1.2-dichloroethane because it was cheaper than safer alternatives. The solvent costs 4,000 yuan (HK$4,900) a tonne. An environmentally friendly adhesive is about 9,000 yuan a tonne.

'Most of the cases happened in winter,' Liu said. 'Workers operated in closed environments with doors and windows shut tight. These workers didn't wear masks or have any preventive measures at all. They were completely exposed to the toxin.'

Chen worked in such a small and messy workshop, called Maluyi leatherwares. He started in July. For 1,500 yuan a month, his job was to brush glue on leather. According to Chen's intermittent memories, his boss fired him shortly before he collapsed on the road in front of the factory gate. It was January 12.

'I could not learn how to put the bag chains on the bag, no matter how many times he taught me. So he fired me that evening,' he said.

Chen's father said the boss might already have known that Chen had health problems, and wanted to get rid of the trouble.

The boss found Chen several hours later, lying and convulsing on the road in front of the factory gate, no trousers on and soaked through. The boss sent him to the hospital. Chen's father and brother-in-law, also migrant workers, quit their jobs in Dongguan, Guangdong, and Taizhou, Zhejiang province, to take care of Chen.

The disease and treatment made him a difficult patient, one of Chen's doctors said. 'He was irritable, and bellowed at others sometimes.'

'That was because I was not full,' Chen said. The nurses said certain ingredients in the medicine he took made him want to eat more.

Chen's brother-in-law said Chen was now like a child - 'even harder to take care of than a child'.

After quitting their jobs, their only source of income was from Chen's sister, who worked in Taizhou. They could not afford to rent a flat in Guangzhou and stayed in the hospital. Chen's father lay on a fold-away cot. The brother-in-law shared the hospital bed with Chen.

Liu said the hospital had already spent more than two million yuan treating the glue-poisoned patients. About a third was paid by the hospital. 'Some factories paid part of the medical fee; some didn't show up at all,' the hospital vice-director said.

Chen's father said the young man's boss paid 8,000 yuan, about 10 per cent of Chen's medical fee. That included 3,000 yuan that the boss owed him in wages.

In another ward at the end of the floor were three female workers. Their bosses seldom showed up. Tan Qiuyan, a 15-year-old from Guangxi , had made leather wallets with all-purpose adhesives in a factory in Baiyun district before she was admitted to hospital on November 14.

On that day her whole body twitched uncontrollably. For the next seven days, she was in a coma. Now Tan was being taken care of by her elder brother, who had quit his job in Guangxi. Living in a remote village, their parents had avoided the one-child policy, and had five children.

Most of the workshops are in the outskirts of Baiyun district, a boomtown of unregistered, unmonitored factories. Liu, the hospital vice-director, said the poisonous-chemical content in the glues was found to be 20 to 30 per cent. The city's production-safety commission found some glues with 60 per cent.

Liu said the recent surge in cases was due to an increasing demand for light-industry products, leading to the creation of more factories and the hiring of many more workers. What used to be a small problem - the annual number of glue-poisoning cases had been in the single digits - had mushroomed.

Chen's brother-in-law said their biggest worry was whether the poisoning would have any after-effects. Acute 1.2-dichloroethane poisoning may cause loss of memory, coma, brain problems and even death.

Liu said any after-effects depended on the patient's specific case and wouldn't be known for a year. Also unknown, he said, was how long the patients needed to stay in hospital - but it could be two years.

For those patients, at least two members of the family would have no source of income for that long.

The government has responded to the poisoning incidents with a campaign against the hidden dangers in the leatherware industry. Officials had seized 2,000 buckets of glue, and another 10 tonnes of glue that bore no brand name, manufacturer name or manufacturer address, the Nanfang Daily reported.

The government also found more than 3,000 small businesses operating without production permits or licences. Guangzhou police have arrested 37 suspects, 15 of whom who were placed in 'criminal detention' and 18 in 'administrative detention'. The 15 arrested included three factory owners, eight glue suppliers and four glue producers.

However, it remains a challenge to supervise the businesses' work conditions regularly.

A report from Labour Action China, a Hong Kong-based organisation that works for the rights of migrant workers, said: 'The health and work safety authorities and occupational disease prevention hospitals usually took action only after harm had been done, or when employees took complaint actions after falling prey to occupational aliments, instead of taking precautionary measures to prevent employees from contracting occupational diseases.'

Suki Chung, director of Labour Action China, said the number of occupational-disease patients was rising, with occupational poisoning the fastest growing. Chung said that many cases went unreported because it was hard for occupational-disease hospitals to establish the connection between organ-failure symptoms and poisoning.

She also said it was hard for the government to monitor the small factories booming in the Pearl River Delta. 'These factories use low-priced and toxic materials to reduce cost,' she said, 'but the punishment is really light and lagging. There are also numerous workshops, some of which receive hazardous outsourcing tasks from big companies. They are even harder to monitor.'


People with pneumoconiosis, an occupational lung disease, in Hunan alone, a tenth of all sufferers on the mainland