China's environmental authorities barely averted the contamination of drinking water for nearly three million people early this year, after a mining company dumped cadmium - a toxic heavy metal used in batteries and paint - into the Longjiang, a river in Guangxi province.
To stop the contamination spreading, the local fire department had to add huge quantities of aluminium chloride, which binds to cadmium and settles on the river bottom. The toxic sediment will eventually be dredged.
Such threats to health and the environment are common in China. The water in as many as half of the country's rivers and lakes is unfit for human consumption or contact. China has also gained a reputation for food and drug contamination.
Internal criticism of the Chinese government's management of health, safety, and overall quality-of-life issues is growing. In July 2011, following the Wenzhou high-speed-rail disaster, Qiu Qiming, a news anchor for national broadcaster CCTV, turned the disaster into a metaphor. "China, please slow down," he said. "If you're too fast, you may leave the souls of your people behind."
Given the pervasiveness of Chinese-made goods, China's safety record concerns consumers worldwide. But Chinese officials' piecemeal efforts to restore confidence in the country's exports are unlikely to reassure foreign consumers or importers.
Chinese policymakers seem unable to grasp the need for crafting appropriate incentives and disincentives. Rather than adopting the Western model of motivating every link in the supply chain to adhere to specified quality and safety standards, the government continues to rely on top-down policies. But the decentralised, dispersed nature of many industries and the absence of effective oversight undermine this approach.
Chinese authorities face a daunting task. A few decades ago, China was a poor, largely rural country with an agrarian economy and almost no middle class. Today, it is the world's second-largest economy, with a thriving manufacturing sector and a rapidly growing, prosperous middle class.
Until relatively recently, environmental protection and consumer safety were secondary issues in the US and Europe. In 1952, London experienced five days of lethal, particulate-laden smog that killed 12,000 people and made 100,000 others ill. And, in 1969, America's polluted Cuyahoga River caught fire.
Just as Europe and the US have made substantial progress in implementing effective health and environmental policies, China's quality-control mechanisms can be improved.
Henry Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. Copyright: Project Syndicate