A top mainland antibiotics producer has cut production after media reports of decades of serious pollution.
Harbin Pharmaceutical Group said yesterday it would temporarily cut production on several product lines, build new waste-treatment facilities and punish managers responsible for recent illegal discharges of pollutants.
The city's environmental authorities said they had almost finalised plans to move the factory to a less populated area. But scientists expressed concern that moving the factory could raise the risk of generating drug-resistant germs, or superbugs.
China Central Television reported on Sunday that the group's general pharmaceutical factory had been polluting a densely populated neighbourhood, incorporating residential compounds, universities and hospitals, since the 1950s.
Levels of airborne pollutants - mainly hydrogen sulphide - were more than 1,000 times the legal limit, while pollutant levels in water were 10 times higher than legally allowed, according to an investigation by Heilongjiang's Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference two years ago, the report said.
Yesterday's company statement confirmed the water pollution finding but denied that air pollution was a problem.
To reduce pollution, the factory said it would cut output in several product lines but did not say which ones, by how much, or for how long.
The factory said the company's operation and business would not be affected in the long term.
Peng Xu, chief inspector of Harbin's Environmental Protection Bureau, told China National Radio that the government was considering moving the factory.
'After years of discussion and site screening, the relocation plan is more or less ready,' Peng said. The factory's penicillin product line, for instance, would be moved to Harbin's Acheng district, the city's poorest and most rural area.
Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, said that due to the high cost and technological limits in dealing with pollutants generated by antibiotic production, developed countries had closed most of their antibiotic factories and outsourced production to developing countries, with China the biggest supplier.
Now developed regions on the mainland were considering moving these factories to less developed regions, Ma said. 'Many are moving from developed coastal areas to inland provinces such as Sichuan and Inner Mongolia. It is an alarming trend.'
Professor Yang Yunfeng, an environmental biologist with Tsinghua University's environment school, said that moving antibiotic factories to less developed areas could also increase biohazard risks.
'The most dangerous thing about an antibiotic factory is ... its ability to transform harmless bacteria in its environment into drug resistant-fiends,' Yang said. 'The more primitive an environment is, the more likely the germs are transformed.'