The first thing that struck Shen Yunxiang when he descended into the bowels of Hisun Pharmaceutical was the smell, or rather the lack of it. It was as if the sewage system had been scrubbed with ammonia, leaving only a sickly sweet aroma strong enough to overpower the stench of human waste.
In less than a minute, though, he realized that the company had exposed him to something far more noxious than feces. He had been sent, unwittingly, to release chemical runoff that Hisun had collected haphazardly beneath the factory, possibly to avoid paying fees to dispose of toxic waste.
Shen's chest constricted. His breathing grew labored, his head faint. Then Feng Huaping, his brother-in-law and fellow migrant worker, who had climbed down first, gasped, "Grab my hand, get me out," before collapsing in a puddle of muck.
Shen was the lucky one. He emerged with migraines and lung congestion, and doctors are still trying to diagnose the illness that is causing them. Feng died that night. A third migrant worker, Tang Dejun, also died in Hisun's fetid plumbing after he was sent down to finish the job the next day.
Hisun is one of China's leading exporters of pharmaceutical products, certified by the US Food and Drug Administration and the European drug commission to sell lifesaving anti-tumor and cardiovascular medications for prices Western manufacturers cannot match.
But the company may pay more attention to fighting cancer in America than in protecting the health of its own workers and neighbors in Taizhou, a seaside industrial city where the air and water bear Hisun's inky signature.
Hisun declined to answer detailed written questions about the incident, as did the police in Taizhou. But a local government official confirmed the deaths, which occurred in August and said they were the subject of a continuing criminal investigation.
Hisun has sprouted quickly, growing from a tiny state-owned drug maker to a pharmaceutical and chemical conglomerate, with shares listed on the Shanghai Stock Exchange and some powerful foreign partners. But company employees and local residents say that it has never stopped dumping untreated chemical waste around Taizhou and that it has minimized or ignored the harmful effects of poisonous substances on its own workers.
"They were reckless to send us down there without protection," said Shen, now recuperating in a nearby hospital. "To send another guy down the next day is beyond belief. They have no regard for human life."
Such disregard appears all too common as China booms. The country's economy is growing faster than any other. But the air and water in many of its leading cities rank as the dirtiest in the world and the country as a whole has by far the world's highest number of workplace fatalities, reaching 11,500 through the first nine months of this year, up nearly 10 percent from the same period last year.
Much of China's economic boom has stemmed from foreign investment and international partnership. Hisun itself has become partners with the Drug Source Co, a distributor of generic drugs based in Westchester, Illinois.
The American company helped Hisun gain regulatory approval to make ingredients for a variety of drugs, including the top-selling anti-tumor medication doxorubicin, used to treat cancer patients. The drugs sold in the US are Hisun's most profitable product lines and are its fastest growing source of revenue, according to reports it has filed as a publicly listed company.