Tue, Jun 05, 2012 - Page 9 News List

China’s toxic overload

Chinese must live with toxic chemicals in their milk, meat and tofu, cooking oil taken from restaurant drains and high levels of water and air pollution, all of which is contributing not only to health problems, but, increasingly, to social instability

By Boris Cambreleng  /  AFP, BEIJING

Illustration: Yusha

“Every day I ask myself, what is safe to eat? The pork is laced with clenbuterol; the beef and lamb contain other toxic additives; and we don’t dare drink the milk,” the post reads.

For most Chinese, living in a healthy manner is not just common sense, but a form of piety. If you fall sick, it is widely assumed it is because you did not really take care of yourself. However, as the lament above — posted on microblogging site Sina Weibo under the pseudonym “White clouds, Calm wind” — suggests, this ancient precept did not anticipate the advent of melamine, cadmium, pesticides, lead, mercury, sulphur dioxide, micro-particles and dozens of other potentially harmful chemicals that have worked their way into China’s food chain, water supply and atmosphere.

Nearly three decades of double-digit industrial development greased by corruption and barely constrained by regulatory oversight has produced, as a by-product, unprecedented levels of pollution and an epidemic of toxic foodstuffs — from baby formula to the grain alcohol favored at wedding banquets, made and marketed by ruthless entrepreneurs.

Many of the thousands of small-scale public protests across China each year are driven by the visible impact of environmental pollution on people’s daily lives, watchdog groups within and outside the country say. Until recently, such outbursts never garnered attention beyond the immediate zone of impact. However, the Internet, and especially homegrown microblogging sites with about 600 million accounts, means the state can no longer keep such incidents from becoming household knowledge across China.

Dozens of food and beverage scandals resulting in hundreds of deaths have made Chinese consumers wary, apprehensive and finally angry. From 2007 until last year, the use of clenbuterol, for example, flourished in factory pig farms across the country. A dangerous anabolic steroid, the chemical is also abused by athletes to build muscle mass. In animal husbandry, it increases the ratio of more expensive lean meat compared with fat.

Nitrogen-based melamine, a compound found in industrial plastics, was widely used in baby formula up until 2008, when the worst food scandal to hit China in years erupted into international news. Six infants died that year from poisoning, and an estimated 300,000 are still suffering health problems, especially kidney dysfunction. Despite the arrest of 21 people — two of whom were executed — a similar case emerged two years later, in 2010.

White Clouds, Calm Wind’s litany of alimentary anxiety also includes a fear of “talc in our tofu,” a staple source of protein consumed throughout China.

“And we can’t eat fried food either, because who can guarantee that it wasn’t cooked in recycled oil taken from the streets?” the post read.

At the end of last year, more than four dozen people were arrested in one province alone for reselling so-called “gutter oil” scooped up from the drains of restaurants.

“As for flour, it’s so unnaturally white that it’s frightening,” the blogger says.

Tainted food might be the least of China’s health hazards — it is still easier for the government to crack down on unscrupulous merchants than to purify China’s water and air. Just this year, there have been two major chemical discharges in life-giving rivers that have sent people scurrying to the supermarket.

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