Poison-Proofing China

STANFORD – Last January, China’s environmental authorities barely averted the contamination of nearly three million people’s drinking water after a mining company dumped cadmium – a toxic heavy metal used in the manufacture of batteries, paint, solder, and solar cells – into the Longjiang River. To stop the contamination from spreading, the local fire department had to add significant quantities of dissolved aluminum 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 not uncommon 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 (not to mention lead paint in toys and poisonous toothpaste). For example, in 2008, the industrial chemical melamine was added to milk products in order to give falsely high readings of milk protein, causing the death of six infants and sickening 300,000 other people.

Similarly, Mengniu, China’s largest dairy company, announced last December that it had destroyed hazardous products at a plant in the Sichuan province after government safety inspectors discovered the carcinogen aflatoxin in a batch of its milk. (The company denied that any contaminated milk had reached consumers.)