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Story Publication logo October 24, 2007

China: Powerless to Fight the Poison


Media file: chinese_deaths.jpg

Reporter Loretta Tofani gets inside America's factory, China, where the lack of health and safety...


The red cadmium dust clouded the air, making it difficult to see. It coated machines, tables, floors, workers' clothes and food. It colored their hair.

"In a half-hour, the powder would be a half-inch high," recalled Liu Hongmei, 35, an assembly-line worker who handled the cadmium used to make batteries for major U.S. distributors such as Rayovac, Panasonic, Eveready and Energizer. "We were always sweeping it with hand brushes, trying to keep things clean."

For years, Liu and several thousand other workers at four factories owned by Gold Peak International made nickel-cadmium batteries using hand tools and simple machines. And for years, these workers complained of headaches, sore throats and vomiting. No one told them cadmium is a carcinogen capable of causing severe bone pain, kidney failure and death.

In 2004, tests showed Liu and at least 400 other workers in the four factories were suffering from much higher than normal levels of cadmium in their blood. Several of Liu's young co-workers already have died.

She and other workers learned the true nature of their illnesses only after challenging their government and their employer, confrontations for which they risked imprisonment in authoritarian China.

Chinese employers and the government failed to protect these workers, but so, too, did U.S. companies seduced by the low price of batteries they imported from China.

Today, U.S. companies no longer widely sell AA and AAA nickel-cadmium batteries in the U.S. They mostly sell the batteries on the Internet for use in cordless phones, laptops, camcorders and digital cameras. Gold Peak claims it no longer manufactures them, but has "fulfilled its obligations" to provide nickel-cadmium batteries by using a subcontractor.

Such changes are of little consolation to Liu, who has constant pain in her knees and feet. Her throat is always sore. Her head hurts. Her hair falls out in thick tufts on her pillow.

"I feel very scared," she said. "There is no medicine that can eliminate the poison, so I will have to live in pain until I have a painful death. I feel very worried. When will I die? Who will take care of my son?"

'It's impossible to breathe': Liu began working at the Gold Peak Xianjin factory in the city of Huizhou in 1990. The factory, now called the Huizhou Advanced Battery Technology (ABT) Co. Ltd., is one of 13 battery factories Gold Peak owns in China. The 400 or so workers at the Xianjin factory produced about 50,000 batteries per day.

The workers never knew the names of the companies that ordered batteries, and it didn't matter to Liu. She just wanted the prestige and higher salary that came with factory work, she said. Liu's parents were uneducated rice farmers with high expectations for their daughter, who had attended high school, a level of education uncommon in poor rural areas. She initially earned about $40 a month working 12-hour days, with a maximum of two days off per month.

On her first day, 'The supervisor told me, 'don't be late' and 'don't leave early,' ' Liu recalled. "Nothing else."

No one ever mentioned the benzene, lead, nickel and other chemicals, the cause of repulsive smells. "For a normal person, the first time you enter the factory, it's impossible to breathe," Liu said. "It was a terrible smell."

But the chemical present in the most toxic amount was one that had no smell - cadmium.

In the U.S., evidence of cadmium's toxicity in 1992 led the Occupational Health and Safety Administration to regulate cadmium as a carcinogen. It decreased the permissible level of cadmium dust and fumes allowed in industrial workplaces from 100 and 200 micrograms per cubic meter of air to 5 micrograms.

Even before health standards in U.S. factories became more stringent, the production of nickel-cadmium batteries had begun to shift to off-shore factories in Japan, Mexico and China, Don Dennis recalled. He worked as an engineer with General Electric Co. when it had a nickel-cadmium battery factory in Georgia in the 1960s.

Shipping records show a regular flow of Gold Peak batteries made in China to U.S. companies.

At least 20 U.S. companies bought batteries made in China from Gold Peak's factories from 1997 through 2007, import documents show. They include national chain stores, such as Best Buy, as well as single stores. The biggest customers, though, were U.S. battery companies themselves.

Energizer Holdings, for example, imported "dry batteries" from Gold Peak through the Port of Los Angeles in 2003 with a factory price of at least $540,000. During the last three months of 1999, the Eveready Co. imported $415,100 of batteries from Gold Peak.

Rayovac, renamed Spectrum Brands in May 2005, imported at least $2 million worth of batteries from Gold Peak's factories in China in 2003 through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Panasonic Industrial Co. imported $145,563 of batteries from Gold Peak through the Port of Long Beach on Sept. 12, 2000.

Batteries come first: In China, each step of the battery-making process required human labor. A worker first scooped the cadmium powder out of bags that arrived from Hong Kong with a hand shovel, separating it into smaller quantities and mixing it with other metals, including nickel. The worker would place the mixture into a machine that would stir and press it, forming it into rolls of cadmium paper. The cadmium then was ready for the assembly line.

Liu's job was to unroll the copper-colored sheet of cadmium paper that would help a finished battery conduct electricity. Then, using a simple clamping machine, she would attach nickel hydroxide onto the sheet.

Liu was given a paper mask to wear, as well as a cotton glove for her right hand. No one received gloves for their left hands in an apparent measure to economize, she said, and even the glove for her right hand seemed useless.

"It was just cloth, so chemicals would pass through the material and sting," she said. "The other hand hurt even more."

The mask did not cover her nose. Cadmium dust entered her nostrils and mouth and lodged in her throat and her mouth, burning them, she said. It also covered her hair. When she returned home, she would wash her hair in a basin, shampooing and rinsing three times. "The water was all red," she said.

The factory had no ventilation. In the early and mid-1990s, there were fans, but the windows never were opened, not even during the summer, Liu and other workers from the same factory said. "The supervisors were afraid the moisture in the [outside] air would hurt the batteries," Liu said. "They were concerned about protecting the batteries, not the workers."

Later, air conditioners were installed, but the ducts to the outside were sealed shut, so the ventilation still was limited.

After working at the factory for three years, Liu developed severe headaches, a near-constant sore throat, and pains in her back and knees. Her voice grew hoarse. By the late 1990s, she would sometimes open her mouth to speak and hear no sound.

She and her colleagues compared ailments. "We had the same kinds of problems. We just thought we were too tired, that it was because of the long hours we were working," Liu said.

Across town, at the Huizhou Power Pack factory owned by Gold Peak, Xie Xin Rong, now 35, felt lucky. Her parents had been poor rice farmers. But she had a good factory job and was able to work lots of overtime. Some months she would bring home the equivalent of $70.

Her job was similar to Liu's. For 11 hours each day, she would hold thousands of small metal plates of pressed cadmium powder. Xie would hold each plate in her left hand. With her right, she would hold a clamping machine, and clamp another metal plate of nickel hydroxide onto the cadmium plate. The plates would become the two poles of the battery. In one hour, she estimated, she would hold 1,200 plates of pressed cadmium powder.

After working in the factory for a year, in 2000, she became ill: Her hair fell out, her knees hurt, and she had severe headaches and vomiting. "I knew if I felt a headache coming, that I had to run to the toilet to vomit," she said, adding that she had to beg her supervisors for permission to be excused. 'If they'd say 'no,' I'd keep asking and start crying.'

On strike: By 2002, China had toughened its own limits for airborne cadmium in factories to 20 micrograms per cubic meter. But Chinese inspection reports show these limits often were exceeded.

On March 3, 2003, for example, an inspector with the Huizhou Center of Disease Control found the level of cadmium in the air at the Gold Peak ABT factory in Huizhou was 10 times the maximum allowable amount. Less than a year later, another inspector found cadmium in the ABT factory was 35 times higher than permissible levels.

The company failed to notify workers of the toxic level of cadmium in the factory, company executive director W.S. Hui said in a written statement, because "annual health checks [of workers] before 2004 did not reveal any abnormality." Prior to 2004, blood or urine tests to detect cadmium were unavailable in southern China, Hui said, although workers disputed that claim.

Workers themselves, at both of the Gold Peak factories, discovered on their own how they had absorbed high levels of cadmium. In December 2003, a worker from the Huizhou Power Pack factory went to the Guangzhou Occupational Disease Prevention and Treatment Centre, where a blood test showed his cadmium level was much higher than allowable limits, according to Au Loong-yu, a researcher with Globalisation Monitor, which has collected the workers' medical records.

A few months later, when the factory did nothing about the employee's high test results, the workers did something courageous in China: They went on strike.

Dozens of workers paid for blood tests themselves at the Guangzhou hospital. "They all came back with bad news, having excessive levels of cadmium in their blood," said Lu Haifeng, another worker from the Power Pack factory.

Lu learned the cadmium in her blood was four times the allowable limit.

"How could the factory do this to me?" she asked. "I am only 31 years old; what am I going to do with the rest of my life? Who is going to take care of my children?"

A few weeks later, Liu and the other Gold Peak ABT workers, no longer docile and industrious, staged a sit-in. They demanded that their own factory have them tested for cadmium.

Liu's blood test showed she had 18.9 micrograms of cadmium per liter; the normal range is 5 or lower.

After the test results were disclosed, dozens of battery workers from both factories went to Beijing to seek help from the central government. Huizhou police and officials unsuccessfully tried to stop them, battery worker Xiang Zhiqing and others said. In Beijing, the workers visited central government offices of the health and labor departments. Officials there directed them to seek help from provincial officials, Xiang said.

A Huizhou government panel led by Huizhou Mayor Huang Yebun later issued a written warning to the workers against complaining to high-ranking officials. The Sept. 3, 2004, warning noted that workers must "obey the law strictly."

Police did not arrest the workers when they visited Beijing. "However, after 4th September, if anyone does the same act, the police will exercise the corresponding punishment on them, according to the Public Security Management Punishment Enactment," the letter read, a reference to arrest and imprisonment.

Guarded responses: As Chinese workers fought to learn about their illnesses, little evidence exists that U.S. battery suppliers sought to learn of working conditions in the factories that provided their products.

Energizer Holdings and Rayovac on their Web sites address concerns about U.S. consumers' safety in using the batteries, noting in product safety sheets that nickel and cadmium are possible carcinogens. But neither company would say whether they ever visited the Chinese factories from the time they started buying the batteries.

When asked about Energizer Holdings' concerns for Chinese workers who made Eveready and Energizer batteries for the company for many years, acting spokeswoman Jacqueline Burwitz said: "We are not the manufacturers of the batteries . . . I have no knowledge of those Chinese workers at another employer's plant."

The company also emphasizes on its Web site its policy of providing "safe, healthy, clean and sanitary working conditions at all facilities" and of following all "occupational health and safety laws." But it does not specifically address the safety of overseas workers who made batteries for Energizer Holdings yet were employed by another company. Rayovac notes on its Web site a policy of maintaining facilities free from recognizable hazards.

Ryan Chuckel, a Rayovac spokesman, said in an e-mail that "safety and quality are the top priority for Rayovac in all aspects of the manufacturing process." The company, according to the e-mail, conducts "comprehensive inspections of all overseas manufacturing facilities before entering into outsourcing arrangements, including reviews of engineering, quality, service and compliance with local regulations and laws."

The e-mail, however, did not specifically address how the company checks on compliance with China's worker-safety laws. The company declined to comment beyond the e-mail statement.

Panasonic, the North American branch of the Japanese electric products manufacturer Matsushita Electric, did not return numerous e-mails and telephone calls.

In interviews, Chinese factory workers complained that whenever non-Asian visitors came to their factories, supervisors removed obvious hazards, such as glues with high benzene content. In general, U.S. business executives say that Chinese manufacturers often show them only their most modern factories and rarely grant access to those plants with substandard equipment and working conditions.

'This is really unbearable': By the end of summer 2004, most of the workers with abnormal cadmium levels left their jobs at Gold Peak's two factories in Huizhou. Factory representatives told the workers they could continue working at the factory, in different jobs, or quit immediately and accept compensation of about $400 to $1,000 depending on the severity of their illness and how much they made.

Liu and Xie accepted the money: in their cases $500 each, or less than a year's salary. They have spent it, mostly on doctor visits and pain medicine.

In 2005, about 300 former Gold Peak workers filed civil suits in Huizhou, seeking compensation of about $31,000 each. The court denied the workers' claims, finding their conditions "had not reached the nationally recognized level that qualifies as cadmium poisoning."

Cadmium poisoning in China is defined as clear clinical manifestation, essentially near-death, when kidneys don't function. But less severe abnormalities in kidney function - such as difficulties in cleaning waste and delivering nutrients to the body - usually occur gradually over the years, worsening over time, according to medical journals.

In 2001, Liu gave birth to a boy, named Yi Hao, now 6.

Like most of the 45 other children whose mothers were pregnant while they worked in four factories manufacturing nickel-cadmium batteries in China, Yi has a weak immune system. Liu said her son has constant severe colds and sore throats. In one study of seven such children, Chinese researchers found that their urinary cadmium concentration was higher than in a control group.

Liu lives in a one-bedroom apartment with her son, her husband, and her husband's parents. Her husband has been unable to find a steady job.

They borrow money from her husband's brother for food and rent.

Today, Liu still has pain in her knees and feet. Her throat is always sore, her head hurts and big chunks of her hair fall out.

"From the outside you cannot tell I have these problems," Liu said. "Even on the day I die, you won't be able to know from the way I look."

Now, Lu and Xie are unemployed and worry about their children. Although she is only 35, Lu always thinks about death and dying. 'I worry, 'When will my death, my destiny come? Who will take care of my children?' This is really unbearable for me.'

Click here to view The Salt Lake Tribune's special web presentation of the American Imports, Chinese Deaths series.





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