Chinese Factory Workers Fall Ill: Is It Pollution or "Hysteria"?

jilin air polluted chemical illness hysteria photo

In a story nearly worthy of the Onion, officials in China have sought to reassure 1,200 factory workers in the city of Jilin that their symptoms of nausea, numbness, dizziness, convulsions, breathing difficulties, vomiting and temporary paralysis were not the result of chemical poisoning from a nearby factory, but rather of "hysteria."

After a chemical plant began production in the spring, workers from a nearby yarn factory began piling up in the city's hospital beds. The factory happens to produce aniline, a highly toxic chemical used in the manufacture of polyurethane, rubber, herbicides and dyes.Reports Andrew Jacobs:

Chinese health officials who contend that the episode is a communal outbreak of psychogenic illness, also called mass hysteria. The blurry vision, muscle spasms and pounding headaches, according to a government report issued in May, were simply psychological reactions to a feared chemical exposure.

During a four-day visit, a team of public health experts from Beijing talked to doctors, looked at blood tests and then advised bedridden workers to "get a hold of their emotions," according to patients and their families.

Western medical experts say fear of poisoning can lead people to describe symptoms that exist mainly in their minds. But outbreaks of psychogenic illnesses on the scale of what has been reported in Jilin are rare, they say.

Rare -- this would be the largest incidence of workplace psychogenic illness on record -- and in Jilin, unlikely. Two workers at the chemical plant have already died this year for reasons unrelated to chemical exposure, officials have said.

The city has a storied history of chemical pollution. A 2005 explosion at another factory that produces aniline killed eight people and sent 100 tons of deadly benzene and nitrobenzene into the Songhua River, tainting drinking water for millions downstream in and around the city of Harbin.

Though initially covered up by state media, the incident became a tipping point in environmental awareness in China. After the government scrambled to cope with an angry public, it talked more transparency and instituted a 13.4 billion yuan river clean-up program.

The Public Reaction
Since 2005, in polluted locales across China, workers and other citizens have not been taking this kind of pollution sitting down.

In May more than 1,000 residents of Jilin blocked railroad tracks in the city for hours in protest over what they saw as the authorities' lax response to the widespread illness.

Anger grew after the State Administration of Work Safety posted a statement on its Web site that called the problem a "chemical leak" and advising other companies to learn from Connell Chemical's mistake. The statement was soon removed.

To get workers back in the factory, local officials have added an incentive of $20 to $30 to monthly salaries that range from $120 to $200. But questions still remain. A half-dozen of those still hospitalized in Jilin told the Times they had not been given a diagnosis nor were they allowed to see their medical records.

Some Transparency Please
It is theoretically possible that some of the workers are suffering from psychosomatic symptoms, a result of actual poisonings in other workers.

But whether this is a case of heavy chemical pollution or simply mass hysteria, the lesson is still the same: bans on news reports, censorship of information and a lack of transparency only serves to make things worse down the road.

In fact, transparency was one of the themes at this week's China-U.S. Strategic-Economic Dialogue in Washington, D.C, where cooperation over everything from climate to currency was on the table.

But transparent data is not just important for free and fair trade. It's necessary, as one of China's environmental ministers has said, for a free and fair living environment too.

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