Five individuals were sentenced to up to four and a half years in prison after residual mercury at an unlicensed factory poisoned over 160 children in 2016, according to a court verdict made public Tuesday in a Legal Evening News report. The decision marks the first sign of justice for the victims’ families in over two years.
The factory in central Hunan province’s Malichang Town began extracting mercury from industrial waste in November 2015 without authorization from the local government. It suspended operations seven months later, having extracted over a ton of mercury under unsafe working conditions. During this time, it had been illegally discharging waste on its surrounding grounds and in an abandoned building. Some of the mercury was also left behind when the workers abandoned the factory.
In May 2016, a trio of fifth-graders sneaked into the workshop to play and explore. When they discovered an amorphous silvery substance littering the grounds, they began collecting it in bottles. When they later brought the bottles to school to share, they had no idea they were poisoning their friends.
According to a June 2016 report by The Paper, Sixth Tone’s sister publication, the three students collected over 50 milliliters of mercury — nearly enough to fill a bottle of Tabasco sauce — which they passed along to their friends. Teachers at the school later issued a statement saying they had found the substance in desks, in garbage bins, and on classroom floors. By their estimation, some 30 students had handled the mercury with their bare hands.
The intermediate people’s court of Xiangxi Tujia and Miao Autonomous Prefecture, where Malichang Town is located, said in an April 2018 judgment document that the factory’s illegal operation had caused a dangerous substance to “flow into society,” resulting in the poisoning of 167 students, all of whom eventually recovered. The judgment document added that the five defendants — four who extracted the mercury plus one who supplied the industrial waste — had contaminated fields and streams near the factory, resulting in the deaths of seven cows. The men were charged with crimes including polluting the environment and causing harm from a dangerous substance. The court fined them a total of 2 million yuan ($309,000) and ordered them to pay back an additional 2.2 million yuan to the local government.
In May, another case of illegal mercury processing involving four people was heard in the same province, though a verdict has yet to be announced. In response to the sentences in the case of the poisoned children, however, many netizens have criticized the verdict as too lenient.
During the 1970s, extracting mercury became a lucrative business, with numerous small-scale operations popping up in China’s rural areas. The toxic element can be found in thermometers, barometers, and other scientific instruments, as well as streetlights, fluorescent bulbs, and neon signs. But the public health risks and lasting environmental damage prompted China — the world’s largest producer and consumer of mercury — to apply the brakes to some of its mining operations. In 2013, China signed the Minamata Convention on Mercury, an international treaty aimed at protecting public health and the environment, and pledged to stop mining mercury by 2032.
Editor: David Paulk.
(Header image: A man extracts mercury at an unlicensed smeltery in Tongren, Guizhou province, May 12, 2011. IC)