Toxic toys from China
By Elizabeth Saas
The Sierra Club has taken a stance against substandard products from China that potentially could harm children and others. Sierra Club President Carl Pope said in a recent statement, “Manufacturers and federal agencies must join together in asking China to clean up its business practices and factories for the protection of its workers and both Chinese and American children.”
Recent actions taken by the Chinese government indicate to many analysts that China is beginning to take concerns like Pope’s seriously. The most dramatic one: on July 10, 2007, the Chinese government executed Zheng Xiaoyu, the former head of its State Food and Drug Administration.
To many, this execution symbolizes a statement of serious intent to address the dangers China and its trading partners face from the manufacture, sale, and export of dangerous goods. Is it the true harbinger of change many claim it to be?
On July 13, the New York Times reported that a Chinese investigation proved Zheng to be guilty of accepting bribes and approving at least six fake drugs, one of which, an antibiotic, is known to have caused the deaths of at least 10 people. The bribes, in excess of $800,000, included large sums of cash and gifts such as a villa, a $30,000 shopping spree to furnish that villa, and a car.
The body count on Zheng’s watch is inestimable. The same Times article reports that tens of thousands of unsafe medications have been produced and distributed. But malfeasance is just one explanation; in addition, the Chinese system is overwhelmed to the point of inefficacy; regulators are unable to stay on top of the rapidly expanding industry.
Under Zheng, the State Food and Drug Administration approved more than 150,000 applications for drugs. In the U.S., the FDA approves about 140 a year. Beyond these two explanations, at least one more exists: bureaucratic turf wars between Zheng’s agency and the Ministry of Health, the sole authority for the drug market before Zheng and his agency.
Ironically, Zheng lobbied for the creation of the State Food and Drug Administration he later undermined. A one-time vociferous consumer safety advocate, Zheng instituted reforms in 1998 to eradicate unsafe manufacturing practices. At the same time he called for industry controls, the government called for price controls. Drug companies were simultaneously charged with lowering their prices while paying for the changes that would make their products safer to comply with Zheng. Many resorted to bribery to get their products approved. Eventually, Zheng, the erstwhile reformer, got on the receiving end of these bribes.
Zheng’s story is also illustrative of the systemic problems China with product safety across a variety of industries. Corruption, rapid expansion, and bureaucratic red tape present staggering challenges to regulators of all Chinese industries. Zheng’s story is the one with most headline-grabbing conclusion, but it is by no means the only example of unsafe products making it past Chinese inspection to harm consumers.
Pet Food: March 2007 marked the largest recall of pet foods in American history after the discovery of the chemical melamine, used in plastics and some fertilizers, in a variety of popular wet foods. The source: wheat gluten exported by the Chinese firm Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology Development.
Toothpaste and Cough Syrup: In May 2007, Panamanian officials discovered 6,000 tubes of toothpaste containing diethylene glycol, a component of antifreeze. According to NPR, the toothpaste was found in a Dollar Plus store in Miami and a Todo A Peso in Puerto Rico.
Last year, the same chemical was discovered in cough syrup that killed at least 100 people. The diethylene glycol originated from the Chinese company Taixing Glycerin Factory, where it was labeled as glycerin, a harmless substance often used as an additive.
China admits that it was the source of the chemical, but claims that it was originally labeled “for industrial use only.”
Seafood: In June 2007, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration halted the import of five types of fish and seafood from China: basa catfish , dace, eel, and shrimp. These products have been found to contain antibiotics as well as agents shown to cause tumor growth in lab animals.
Ceramic Heaters: In June, more than one million China-made ceramic heaters were recalled because of product safety issues. The heaters, distributed by Lasko Products Inc. of Pennsylvania, posed a potential fire hazard due to a faulty power cord that overheated.
Toys: In June 2007, there was a recall of some Thomas the Tank Engine toys. The yellow and red paint used on the toys was found to contain lead. Lead has also been found in toy jewelry exported from China.
Tires: On August 9, 2007, Foreign Tire Sales announced a recall of 255,000 tires made by the Chinese manufacturer Hangzhou Zhongce. The tires lack a safety feature that prevents tread separation.
These stories are representative of the problem posed by Chinese imports. In the wake of Zhengs’s execution, Chinese authorities have been uncharacteristically forthcoming about its product safety problems. Many suppose that these admissions are a response to the increasing pressure China faces from its trading partners in the U.S. and the European Union.
According to NPR, Chinese inspectors announced a seizure of “tons of candy, pickles, crackers and seafood tainted with formaldehyde, illegal dyes and industrial wax.” The Chinese government has also taken responsibility for its role in the tire recall. While acknowledgment that there is a problem is an important first step, the complexities regulators in China face make the possibility of rapid systemic change doubtful.
The U.S. government has responded to growing concerns from a worried public by creating a new panel on import safety under the aegis of Health and Human Services, headed by Secretary Michael Leavitt. In addition, Reuters News Service reported on August 15 that President Bush sent a “team to China recently to press for steps such as permission to send U.S. inspectors to Chinese food plants.”
Congress is also working on increasing the safety of imports. Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, for example, has proposed a new food import fee as well as the consolidation of oversight with respect to food imports. At the moment, the Food and Drug Administration, the Agriculture Department, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission are some of the agencies responsible for the safe import of goods.
Interviewed by Reuters, Leavitt admits his panel is one small step in a very long process. Due to the complexity of the trade-product problem with China—the sheer magnitude of items even the most committed watchdog must monitor in China’s rapidly expanding economy, the bureaucratic disorganization here and there, and the deep-rooted corruption in the Chinese system—real change for the better will be a long time in coming.
The Sierra Club intends to sue American retailers over issues of product safety. Among the companies put on notice: Target, Dollar General Corp., and toymaker RC2 Corp.
In the meantime, we should remain vigilant, test our children’s toys for lead and keep the benefits of buying locally in mind. Though we’ve exported much of our production to many other countries with lesser standards than ours, we can’t sidestep the responsibility for how their factories manufacture products we use—especially since most of our production has gone overseas to avoid domestic labor and environmental standards.
It took a long and hard effort to clean up our factories, the least we should do is take those standards with us overseas.