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Cadmium, Chinese Workers And "Cheap" Electronics - WSJ [View All]

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hatrack Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Jan-15-08 08:50 PM
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Cadmium, Chinese Workers And "Cheap" Electronics - WSJ
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No idea how I got past the paywall . . .


But having rules and enforcing them are two different things. China has dozens of so-called "hot spots" where the cadmium contamination is similar to levels at U.S. superfund sites. More that 10% of China's arable land is contaminated with heavy metals such as cadmium, according to the State Environmental Protection Agency, and the metals are entering China's food supply. At least a dozen academic studies in the past two years have found unsafe levels of cadmium in fruit and vegetables grown in Chinese soil. In a study published last year, researchers at the Guangdong Institute of Ecology found excessive levels of cadmium in Chinese cabbage grown in Foshan. The battery industry isn't the only source of environmental cadmium contamination in China, but it is a major contributor.

Often, these risks extend to workers. Last year, at least 20 workers at a Panasonic Corp. cadmium-battery plant in Wuxi were found to have elevated levels of the toxin, and two were diagnosed as poisoned. In 2005, 1,000 workers at Huanyu Power Source Co., based in Xinxiang, Henan, were also found with cadmium exposure. Both Panasonic and Huanyu say they have taken care of the affected workers, providing health care and compensation exceeding the requirements of Chinese law. Yet these findings didn't necessarily result from corporate or government vigilance. The Panasonic-plant contamination, for instance, came to light after some workers watched a television show about cadmium poisoning -- and got themselves tested.

Protest about contamination at the GP plants has persisted in part because of the determination of Ms. Wang, a GP engineer, to publicize the matter. Born into a relatively well-off family, Ms. Wang attended university and obtained an engineering degree before hiring on at a newly opened GP factory in the southern Chinese city of Huizhou, a fast-growing center of China's electronics industry. The year was 1995, and GP Batteries, a Singapore-listed unit of Hong Kong-listed Gold Peak Industries (Holdings) Ltd. Huizhou, was a prestigious employer, eventually becoming one of the largest makers of nickel-cadmium batteries in China.

As a machine designer, Ms. Wang worked in the management offices of a walled compound of pink-tiled buildings where some 1,500 women in matching blue smocks worked 12-hour days assembling nickel-cadmium battery packs for toys and other products. GP's clients eventually came to include dozens of U.S. companies including Energizer Battery Co., Proctor & Gamble Co.'s Duracell, Spectrum Brands Inc.'s Ray-O-Vac, Hasbro, Mattel, Wal-Mart and Toys "R" Us. For years, factory workers complained about illnesses -- nausea, hair loss and exhaustion, for instance. But GP management says it wasn't aware of the extent of the cadmium danger. "We knew it was dangerous, but we thought that if it was handled in a reasonable manner you should be OK," says Henry Leung, chief operating officer of GP Batteries. "This is all new for China."


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