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Cadmium poison in a battery-making town

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Caixin has published an exposé (paywall) on Xinxiang, a town in central Henan Province that once had over a hundred battery-making factories, and how it provides a “case in point” to a common problem in China: the clash of “fast-paced and sometimes reckless economic development” and workers’ safety and the health of the environment.

Here’s what many workers in Xinxiang have had to deal with:

  • Long-lasting poisoning from the heavy metal cadmium, which in its oxide form was handled by factory workers with their bare hands when making nickel-cadmium batteries.
  • Nickel-cadmium batteries were once widely used in portable power tools and electronic devices, but their use is now restricted in many countries because of harmful effects on the environment.
  • Hundreds of employees of Henan Huanyu Power Source Company and other battery makers were exposed to cadmium, which often causes incredible pain and kidney failure and for which there is no cure.
  • Though some have considered it, no legal remedy is likely to be found for these workers, Caixin notes, because many companies are state-owned, including Huanyu. “Chinese courts have the power to refuse to hear lawsuits. They’ve been known to do so if the potential defendant is a government agency or state-owned firm,” Caixin says.

The toxic metal has also permeated the environment in Xinxiang:

  • A worker interviewed by Caixin said that as much as 40 tons of water are needed to produce 1 ton of the cadmium product used in manufacturing, and untreated wastewater was simply dumped into the Mingshengqu River, which was labeled one of the most polluted rivers in the region by the provincial government in 2015.
  • A Beijing-based environmental NGO recently found that 12 wheat samples collected in Xinxiang were “laced with up to 10 times the amount of cadmium allowed under national standards for grain products,” indicating severe soil pollution. This problem is present throughout China: A government study previously found that nearly one-fifth of China’s farmland was contaminated.

Lucas Niewenhuis

Lucas Niewenhuis is an associate editor at SupChina who helps curate daily news and produce the company's newsletter, app, and website content. Previously, Lucas researched China-Africa relations at the Social Science Research Council and interned at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. He has studied Chinese language and culture in Shanghai and Beijing, and is a graduate of the University of Michigan.