Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Toxic assets from China

First it was the lead in paint on toys. Lead based paint has been illegal in the United States for years because it can cause lead poisoning which can lead to among other things blindness and mental retardation in children, but that didn't stop a lot of Chinese factories from using lead based paint in toys. Lead paints are noted for their bright, new-looking colors. Apparently it was all about appearance, trying to get people to buy a product rather than the risks consumers might be subjected to.

Then it was the melamine which first showed up in pet food, resulting in the deaths of thousands of animals in the U.S. Later, melamine was found in some hard candy sold in the U.S. but it was in China itself that the most tragic stories were told concerning melamine. Apparently baby formula made with melamine looks nice and healthy, with a vigorous luster. But that luster concealed the death that lurked inside. The melamine damaged or destroyed the kidneys of thousands of children who drank the formula and several of them died. Worse, the Chinese government concealed the scandal and kept it out of the news for months while more children drank the tainted formula and died. Finally, they were forced to do something, and a handful of low level food executives were found guilty and sentenced to death. But if you believe that the handful put on public trial and convicted were responsible for the whole thing then you probably don't think that Donald Rumsfeld had anything to do with Abu Graib either.

Now, we are hearing about strontium sulfide in drywall that originates in China. It's not about the appearance, to be sure, since you usually don't see your drywall unless someone knocks a hole in the wall, but the drywall can be hazardous in at least two ways. The first is that it can give off gases when heated that corrode copper wiring. That in turn could cause a short and start a fire. The other is that the gases have been blamed for headaches and other ailments.

My issue is this: In the United States we have a lot of regulations for what can and can't be used in various products and almost all of those regulations have their foundation in hard science that is designed to ensure the safety of products that we use in our homes every day. In American factories those regulations are strictly enforced and their violation can lead to fines, jail time or the shutdown of entire companies (like the peanut company that was responsible for the recent salmonella outbreak and has since been forced to shut down.) Those regulations may be a bureaucratic mess for some businesses but they are written with a very clear directive-- that the basic safety of the consumer is the first and foremost concern.

In China, the same regulations either do not exist or they are not enforced. Sure, there was apparently a law somewhere that they used to convict the melamine scapegoats but they had been doing it for years with no consequence so if the law was there then someone had to make a conscious decision to either ignore it or choose not to look very closely to see if regulations were being followed. I might add that I don't know if it played a role in this case, but communism has not stamped out the centuries old tradition of bribery, especially in rural China.

Supposedly the stuff we import from other countries meets U.S. standards, but considering that even today we can't even inspect three percent of the cargo that comes into U.S. ports for things like nukes or biological weapons, I think it's safe to say that the percentage that get a chemical analysis for purposes of verifying product safety is something like zero (in fact it probably is zero.) Wait until people start showing up with symptoms, then they will investigate and order a recall.

There are still some countries whose labels I might be inclined to trust. But with this latest episode, I'd say that's strike three on China. I will try and avoid all Chinese made goods until I'm sure they've made the reforms necessary to ensure that their products are as safe as those made in the U.S., and then prove they can maintain those standards for a good long time.

Chinese made goods may cost less than American made ones, but my health and my families' health is too important to gamble on a few pennies saved at the store.


Craig said...

This is off topic Eli, but this is the best way to mention this -

I just went to a meeting of the Maricopa County Community College District Governing Board and had the dubious privilege of witnessing Debra Pearson (nee Brimhall) in action.

Take her back, please. We have enough loons of the homegrown variety here already.

Eli Blake said...

God, no!

I'd rather take the flu back.

Anonymous said...

I dunno, Eli. That peanut company wasn't even getting slaps on the wrist despite being in violation of numerous health code violations repeatedly over many years, and their Texas plant wasn't even inspected for years. And nobody at the SEC even bothered to check whether Bernie Madoff was legit or not for years after they started getting complaints. That's not a heck of a lot different from China, imo.

To me, the worst crime of the nearly three decades of Reaganism - including the Clinton interregnum - was the gutting of regulatory oversight, both actively through dangerous legislative deregulation and passively through not enforcing the regulations that hadn't yet been gutted.

Eli Blake said...

Well, you do have a point there.

Nobody wants to spend government money on regulations, and also the regulators themselves have gotten too cozy with those who they want to regulate, but I would still point out that as far as I can tell the only way we regulate this stuff from China is by recall when it gets too dangerous. That's a little like practicing good health by having an emergency operation every time you need one.

Except that there are people who do that too, in fact our health and insurance system practically encourage it.

Anonymous said...

I don't buy chinese shit because thats how American jobs get sent over there.

But if safety is what will finally convince some people, then I can go along with that too.