Wednesday, March 11, 2009

You shall not commit adultery

We usually associate the commandment "you shall not commit adultery" with unfaithfulness to one's marriage partner. However, the word "adulterate" has a much broader meaning: "To make impure by adding improper or inferior ingredients."

In recent years no country has been more in the news for adulterating its products than China. Here are some instances that I remember:
  • Pet food made from Chinese gluten (wheat protein) killed pets in Canada and the US. Food companies test the gluten they buy by measuring its nitrogen content, since protein contains nitrogen. The Chinese supplier sold them low-quality gluten adulterated with melamine, an inexpensive chemical high in nitrogen. The gluten passed the tests, but killed the pets. (Wikipedia article)
  • Metal figurines from China worn on children's charm bracelets are frequently recalled because they often contain a high percentage of toxic lead. (A typical recall) [Update, January 2010: "...some Chinese manufacturers [now] use cadmium, a carcinogenic heavy metal, to make charm bracelets and shiny pendants sold in the U.S. because they are banned from using lead..." - Business Week quoting Associated Press: ]
  • Painted toys made in China for major US companies had to be recalled when they were found to have lead-based pigments in the paint. One Chinese factory owner, distraught that a lifelong friend had sold him the paint with an assurance that it was lead-free, committed suicide. ( story)
  • Drug companies had to recall heparin products in the US and Europe because the Chinese source of the raw material (unrefined heparin) had deliberately adulterated it with a similar molecule that appeared to be heparin on standard tests, but killed patients. (New York Times story)
  • A major milk company in China discovered that the milk it was buying had been watered down and then adulterated with melamine to make it pass tests of protein content. The company concealed this problem for several months, perhaps to avoid a scandal during during the Beijing Olympics; during this delay they sold baby formula made from the contaminated milk, permanently harming thousands of babies. The problem was only revealed when the company told its major shareholder in New Zealand. Products containing Chinese milk were recalled all over Asia, and as far away as Canada and the US. (Times (UK) story)
  • An Australian company sold a children's craft kit containing beads that stuck together when sprayed with water. It had to recall all the kits when children began going into seizures and comas after swallowing the beads. It was discovered that the Chinese factory making the kits had replaced the safe but expensive glue with a cheaper chemical that turned into the drug GHB when swallowed. (New York Times article)
And those are just a few cases that I remember. After all that, my imagination had run out of new ways for Chinese manufacturers to poison their customers, but apparently theirs had not. Here are two news stories in today's Vancouver Province newspaper:

(Toxic Wallboard Story) (Are you affected?)

According to these news stories, since 2001 Canada has imported nearly 1,000,000 square metres of Chinese wallboard (North Americans call it Gyproc or Drywall). That's enough for 600 complete houses or 2000 apartments. Now some experts are saying that if your home has as few as three panels of that wallboard (one short wall!) your home may be unfit to live in and should be bulldozed. So this problem could affect tens of thousands of homes in Canada.

Wallboard is supposed to be gypsum (calcium sulphate). In Canada and the US the gypsum is usually from a mine or recycled from old or scrap wallboard. But the Chinese wallboard was made from calcium hydroxide that had already been used to "scrub" the smoke from power stations. Toxic substances removed from the smoke were absorbed by the calcium hydroxide, and are now being released from the wallboard into Canadian homes.

The main toxin is
hydrogen sulphide which causes (here I quote the newspaper) "serious health conditions and illnesses, such as shortness of breath, dizziness, headaches, fatigue, insomnia, eye irritations and respiratory difficulties". Nosebleeds are mentioned elsewhere in the story.

Hydrogen sulphide smells like rotten eggs, but our noses quickly get desensitized to it, so you won't smell it most of the time. But if you smell rotten eggs right after entering a closed building from the fresh air, it's probably there all the time. If you have any of the symptoms above, and they clear up when you go away for a few weeks, that's also a clue. Since hydrogen sulphide corrodes metals, two other good clues are that your silverware tarnishes quickly, and when an electrician checks the wiring behind your switches and outlets it looks blackened and scorched. The news stories recommend that if you suspect this problem is affecting your home, you should call researchers at America Watchdog's Chinese Drywall Complaint Center, 1-866-714-6466 or visit

This case, and all the cases I listed at the start, involved someone cutting costs by replacing a safe but expensive substance with something cheaper that is harmful to our health. These adulterated products are destroying China's reputation, which is unfortunate because the world needs China to succeed. The present political reality there, though not ideal, is better for the average Chinese citizen than any other regime that has prevailed in China during my lifetime; remember the Great Leap Forward (1958-60), the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), and Tiananmen Square (1989)?

Europe and America also had their era of unregulated trade in dangerously adulterated products, an era that ended only a century ago; let's hope that China catches up fast in this area, for everyone's sake.