Winter vacation has arrived in China, but there are at least a dozen families in the eastern province of Zhejiang who aren’t in a celebratory mood. At least 13 children are still suffering from nosebleeds and swollen lymph nodes four months after their school completed construction of an outdoor running track that was later found to be emitting toxic fumes, financial news outlet Caixin reported Tuesday.
The next day, parents told Sixth Tone that the authorities are using intimidation tactics to keep a lid on the scandal.
Beginning in September, hundreds of students at Sanmen Experimental Primary School in Sanmen — a county administered by the city of Taizhou — began exhibiting worrying symptoms including coughing, stomachache, dizziness, and nosebleeds, according to Beijing-based business newspaper the Economic Observer, which broke the news in January. After the school finished building its new running track in early September, the paper reported, a “pungent smell” settled over the campus.
Since 2014, poor quality control of school construction projects has contributed to a number of similar cases in several provinces across China — including Guangdong, Jiangsu, and Hubei — with hundreds of children falling ill from daily exposure to toxic chemicals found in construction materials and untreated industrial waste. Several previous cases have involved hazardous running tracks.
When the majority of Sanmen Experimental Primary School’s 1,777 students participated in optional health checks in November, the evaluations of 56 students revealed “clinically significant abnormality,” according to Li Zongtian, the deputy director of the county’s education bureau, who shared information about the doctors’ diagnoses in an interview with the Economic Observer in January. However, Li said his office could not confirm whether the students’ illnesses were related to the new track.
According to documents obtained by the Economic Observer, the school claimed that a test conducted by a government-affiliated inspection center in September had determined that the running track met standards for toxic emissions. However, a third-party test in October requested by parents and approved by both local education authorities and the school showed that the track’s emissions exceeded a national standard published in May 2018, with the concentration of formaldehyde — a carcinogenic compound found in building materials — registering at over twice the level allowed. These results directly contradicted the initial inspection, which claimed that the formaldehyde emissions fell within an acceptable range. The third-party test also found that the total concentration of three kinds of phthalates — chemicals believed to harm the liver and reproductive organs — exceeded safe levels by a factor of five.
Parents, meanwhile, say that a second-grade classroom just a hallway’s width from the running track has seen the most severe symptoms, with 42 out of 45 students being affected to some degree.
An investigation by the Economic Observer found that the track’s construction was completed in less than 30 days — the project’s anticipated time frame, according to a notice on the county government’s website — and that the construction company, Sanmen Zhongcheng Construction Co. Ltd., had only received authorization to undertake sports-related projects on Sept. 18, weeks after the track was completed.
On Jan. 4 — the day the Economic Observer published its report — the Sanmen County education bureau announced on social app WeChat that the track did not meet the 2018 national standard, and that it had therefore been removed in November. The local government has asked police and the public prosecutor to investigate the companies involved in the design, supervision, and construction of the track, and has removed the school’s principal and an education bureau official in charge of infrastructure from their posts. The principal, the official, and three others involved in the project are still under investigation, the education bureau said in its announcement.
The partially demolished playground of Sanmen Experimental Primary School in Sanmen County, Zhejiang province, 2019. The school’s brand-new running track was removed in November after students began getting sick, allegedly from exposure to toxic fumes emitted from the track. Courtesy of a parent
In the aftermath of the illnesses, some parents proposed that the kids’ medical costs be covered for the next three to 15 years in the event of lingering health issues from exposure to the toxic track. But as of this week, the parents say they have neither received compensation from the local government for the medical costs they’ve already incurred nor gained any further information from the school or local education authorities about the results of the investigation, according to Caixin’s report.
Li from Sanmen’s education bureau told Sixth Tone on Wednesday that he was not aware of the investigation’s latest findings, as the case is currently with the county’s “supervision committee.” When asked to provide contact details for the committee or any person in charge of the investigation, Li said he did not have that information. He also refused to comment on the parents’ demands for compensation, saying it was “inconvenient” to do so over the phone.
Lin Yingbao, the vice principal of Sanmen Experimental Primary School, told Sixth Tone by phone on Wednesday that the county’s publicity bureau is in charge of providing updates on the case and declined to say anything further.
On Tuesday, the school suspended classes for winter vacation. According to parents interviewed by Caixin, at least 13 students are still showing abnormal health symptoms such as swollen lymph nodes, and some families have traveled as far as Shanghai and Beijing to seek treatment.
But on Wednesday, a parent who requested anonymity for fear of repercussion from the authorities told Sixth Tone that there are many more students — probably several hundred — who are still suffering with a range of symptoms. The man said parents are afraid to speak out after government officials visited their homes and warned them not to. Several parents have been questioned by police, he added, and videos seen by Sixth Tone show parents with their faces hidden saying the government ordered them to stop spreading news of the case on social media.
“We’ve spent over 10,000 yuan [$1,500] on tests, medicine, and travel,” another father of a second-grader who suffered from nosebleeds and tremors in his hands told Sixth Tone on Wednesday. Apart from the economic costs and the disruption to his job — the man took half a month off to shuttle his child to and from hospitals — the father said what concerns him most is the possibility of enduring medical problems.
“Right now, all of the parents are worried about what the future will bring,” he said. “Just after final exams, my child’s nose started bleeding. I was afraid.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified one set of harmful substances measured by the third-party test.
Editor: David Paulk.
(Header image: A torn-up running track at a primary school in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, Nov. 5, 2015. Xu Wenge/VCG)