Family struggles to pay bills after son hit by formaldehyde poisoning

Wang Kuang diagnosed with kidney disease caused by high formaldehyde levels at home

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 September, 2013, 5:41pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 September, 2013, 5:55pm

Exhausted Mao Yuming, 56, returned to her home in Wuhan city in south China’s Hubei province on Wednesday. She had just finished performing ‘changing faces’, a magic trick in Chinese opera where performers change their make-up in a very short time, for several days at a funeral in the countryside. She had been paid 400 yuan (HK$500) per day, which was preferable to singing in the public square at Jianghan Road where she would only receive a few 10-yuan bills or 100 yuan at best.

“I have to sing and make money. My son is depending on me,” said Mao, who is unemployed.

Her son Wang Kuang, 29, has been suffering from a mysterious disease where his body, in particular his belly area, has become extremely swollen. It was at its worst when his abdomen, filled with water, swelled to a size bigger than a basketball. His symptoms later transferred to his lungs and kidneys, causing him severe pain.

It started in summer three years ago, when she and her family moved into their newly-decorated two-bedroom apartment that was filled with a strong chemical smell. Soon Wang, who liked to keep the windows and the door of his room shut, began to have headache and other troubling symptoms.

It was only in July that he was diagnosed with membranous nephropathy, a progressive kidney disease, by the Nanjing General Hospital of Nanjing Military Command, caused by formaldehyde poisoning. It cost the family about 300,000 yuan to treat the disease, which has left them with heavy debts.

The family then had the flat decontaminated to remove all traces of formaldehyde. “We are extremely sad that our son got sick from formaldehyde poisoning. We hope other families can avoid such tragedy,” Mao said.

The State Administration of Work Safety published in 2010 test results that showed that more than 70 per cent of the products of 85 domestic wood furniture manufacturers contained excessive formaldehyde and were dangerous to human health.

Last Sunday more than 100 students at Yucai Primary School in Mengcun village in northern China’s Hebei province experienced coughing, sneezing, teary eyes and itchy throats, Yanzhao Metropolis Daily reported.

Environmental department tests showed that the school’s classrooms contained four times more formaldehyde compared to the safe standard of 0.1mg/m3, as defined by China’s national Indoor Air Quality Standards. The sources of formaldehyde poisoning were detected from the new desks and chairs. The school suspended classes for a week, and pupils later returned to school after their old desks and chairs were restored.

“A lot of furniture uses wood-based panels containing glue rich with formaldehyde,” said Professor Li Jialin, Centre of Building Environment Test Tsinghua University-IAQ. “A strong pungent odour can be detected when formaldehyde levels exceeds 0.1mg/m3. High formaldehyde content is harmful to human health.”

He advised families to use solid wood furniture instead of ones made with wood-based panels. A family should not move into a newly-decorated home, even if well-ventilated, for the first three to six months, he said.

Mao is planning a fundraising event next week in Wuhan city to help raise money for her son and for leukaemia patients they’ve met during Wang’s treatment who were made ill from formaldehyde poisoning.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer and the US Environmental Protection Agency have classified formaldehyde as a human carcinogen. Their related research studies have suggested an association between formaldehyde exposure and several cancers, including nasopharyngeal (throat) cancer and leukaemia.

Chinese media reports frequent cases of formaldehyde poisoning. However, China so far has not published any restrictions on using formaldehyde in manufacturing.