Errors Made in Toxic School Handling, Authorities Say

2016-04-26 05:03:22

An initial investigation into pollution near a prestigious school in the eastern Chinese city of Changzhou that is at the center of a health scare has found no evidence of current air quality contamination, according to a statement by the local government issued Monday night. But the preliminary report identified a number of problems regarding soil restoration at the site and also pointed out several shortcomings in how the case was handled.

Students at the Changzhou Foreign Languages School (CFLS), located in Changzhou’s Xinbei District, have fallen ill over the past year, with parents assigning the blame to the adjacent sites that used to house three chemical-producing plants, including one owned by Jiangsu Changlong Chemicals Co. Ltd.

It said that Changzhou’s Xinbei District did not finish restoration of the grounds on time, and that the school moved in before restoration of the grounds had been finished. It added that the restoration work unit had not implemented the necessary protection measures, and the oversight of the restoration work by Xinbei District was insufficient.

Finally, the governments at the city and district level, as well as their relevant departments, did not attach enough importance to the problem and did not respond quickly enough, the report said. In addition, the report said that their communication with parents was insufficient.

The report said investigations where already underway against those responsible, but did not elaborate.

The local government promised to look into their own shortcomings and to take precautions so that this kind of incident never happens again.

The statement, posted to the official Weibo microblog account of the local government’s public affairs office, said soil, air, and groundwater samples had been taken at CFLS and the sites of the three former chemical companies. Initial results show there were no clear differences between the air quality measured at CFLS and samples taken at two control sites.

The statement posted Monday stressed that any final evaluation would have to wait until the investigation is completed. It did not say when that would be.

The statement said hygiene and drinking water at CFLS “met standards,” but did not give specifics.

The investigators also have asked the chemical companies implicated for details about what they produced at the site and how they processed emissions. They also asked the school for its construction plans, the statement said.

A student runs out of the building after the final bell at Changzhou Foreign Language School in Changzhou, Jiangsu province, April 19, 2016. Zhou Pinglang/Sixth Tone

A student runs out of the building after the final bell at Changzhou Foreign Language School in Changzhou, Jiangsu province, April 19, 2016. Zhou Pinglang/Sixth Tone

The newly opened campus of CFLS has made headlines in recent weeks in China when a report on state television detailed incidents of eczema, bronchitis, headaches, lymphoma, and even leukemia among students. Parents say soil contamination from the nearby former sites of the chemical companies is responsible.

CFLS and the municipal government in Changzhou had previously questioned some of the allegations raised in the TV report. 

Chemical company Changlong on Tuesday morning did not respond immediately to telephone calls from Sixth Tone requesting comment.

Parents of CFLS students are so far unconvinced by the findings. In a message sent to Sixth Tone, one mother, surnamed Zhong, accused the Changzhou government of “whitewashing” the issue.

Monday’s statement cited a “medical expert group,” set up by the National Health and Family Planning Commission and the Jiangsu Provincial Commission of Health and Family Planning. The group had received 909 medical histories from the Changzhou Municipal Commission of Health and Family Planning and the parents of the school’s students. According to those medical histories, there were 247 people with lumps on their thyroid gland, the causes of which were unknown. The statement added that the incidence rate of lumps on thyroid glands among the Chinese public has sharply increased over the past years.

In addition, 35 people had swollen lymph nodes, with the most common cause being infection, according to the statement.

In a telephone interview with Sixth Tone, a father of a former CFLS student surnamed Jin questioned these findings. He said that parents themselves had gathered medical histories and found more than 35 cases of lymph node swelling among a fraction of the school’s students alone.

In a message sent to Sixth Tone, one father, surnamed Pan, wondered how the government had received these medical histories, as he had never given them any. “Where does this data come from?” he asked.

The medical expert group is looking further into the causes behind the illnesses, the statement said.

The investigation into air, groundwater, and soil pollution was conducted by a team of researchers from the Ministry of Environmental Protection and the Jiangsu Provincial Government. 

The Ministry of Education also sent a team to Changzhou, the statement said. 

The Changzhou government pledged to “earnestly investigate” the incident to “safeguard the health of teachers and students.” It also said it would take steps to ensure that classes at the school could continue uninterrupted.

CFLS refused to comment when contacted by Sixth Tone on Tuesday morning.

Professor Pan Xiaochuan of the School of Public Health at Peking University told Sixth tone that according to the investigative result so far, he thought the research to be scientific and convincing.

But he added that it is hard to judge the effects of pollution half a year after the students started getting ill.

Additional reporting by Shi Yi and Peng Wei.

(Header image: CFLS’s new campus is visible behind the ongoing restoration of the former site of the Changlong chemical company, Jiangsu province, April 19, 2016. Zhou Pinglang/Sixth Tone)