Running on fumes

Fresh health scare at schools

A statue of former Chinese leader Mao Zedong is seen in front of smoking chimney at a petrochemical plant in Nanjing

Air pollution is not the only health threat facing China’s school kids

In WiC322 we reported on a school in Jiangsu province where students were suffering nosebleeds and bouts of dizziness. The cause was revealed to be toxic remnants from three chemical factories that used to occupy the school site. At least one of those factories had dumped its waste in the area, heavily polluting the ground.

Whilst this was a fairly localised crisis, two months later China’s schools have been gripped by a national health scandal that has seen children in many provinces suffer from toxic poisoning. Their illness is being attributed to noxious fumes emitted from school playgrounds and running tracks, which it now appears were made of toxic substances.

Concern about the toxicity of the plastic and rubber materials commonly used to construct sports grounds has been longstanding in China. Southern Weekend says the first warning came in 2003 when a professor in Beijing found that the material in some of the athletics tracks contained dangerous levels of toxins and recommended their production be halted.

At the time, the Beijing government was funding the construction of a number of school sports grounds as part of the capital’s pre-Olympic development. Following the professor’s warning, the vice mayor of the city organised a task force to test the tracks, concluding that they posed no health risks.

The issue did not go away, with Southern Weekend claiming there have been at least 21 reported cases of “toxic running tracks” since 2015. The most high-profile case came when a track at Shenzhen Foreign Language College was found to have a toxicity 140 times safe levels. The students at a school in Sichuan also exhibited symptoms of poisoning in May – particularly nosebleeds and dizziness – after their school moved to a campus with a new running track.

Last month, six more cases emerged, and national attention was garnered when dozens of pupils fell ill at Beijing’s No.2 Experimental School. Xinhua reports that subsequent tests revealed the school’s track was “emitting excessive amounts of poisonous substances”.

The South China Morning Post later reported that health checks found that 137 of the students had high levels of benzene and formaldehyde in their blood.

Last week the Ministry of Education called for a national halt to the construction of running tracks pending an investigation this summer on their quality. Meanwhile Beijing No.2 Experimental School is amongst those that have already dug up the offending surfaces, although it took repeated protests from parents before it did so.

Last month a special news report by the state broadcaster CCTV announced that several factories in Hebei that produced running track surfaces for schools have been closed after it was discovered they were using recycled tyres, tubing and other materials to manufacture them.

Qu Rujing, the head of an organisation that promotes recycling, told Caixin Weekly that this is fairly common practice worldwide.

“The problem in China is a lack of standards for track material manufacturing and [weak] government oversight of the industry,” Qu told the magazine. concurred, stating that although the materials used in the manufacture of these synthetic surfaces are regulated, the adhesives used to hold them together are not.

Much like China’s repeated food safety scares, toxic running tracks have become a touchstone issue infuriating the Chinese middle class. Worried about a backlash in public opinion, the Ministry of Education is now trying to sound tough, declaring that those responsible for the toxic tracks will be “severely punished, with no mercy”.

This is unfortunate news for Lin Zulian, the democratically elected Party secretary of Wukan village, who has been accused of taking an Rmb80,000 ($12,023) kickback from the construction of a running track at one of the village’s schools, the South China Morning Post reports. Protests in Wukan have been ongoing since Lin was detained last week, accused of accepting bribes. Two days after his arrest, he appeared on CCTV to confess his crimes.

However, the villagers who elected Lin in 2012 (a rare thing in the Chinese political context) believe that the charges and confession have been fabricated. The BBC reports they think Lin’s intention to organise new demonstrations against the government’s failure to compensate the villagers for land they lost in 2011 is the true cause for his arrest (see WiC133 and WiC143).

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