Drug giant accused of toxic emissions

The Chinese mainland’s biggest antibiotics producer, in Harbin , Heilongjiang province , has been polluting its neighbourhood with poisonous gas and wastewater since the 1950s, according to a China Central Television report yesterday.

CCTV report says the country’s biggest antibiotics plant pumped poisons into a densely populated neighbourhood for decades.

A medicine factory of Harbin Pharmaceutical Group

The level of hydrogen sulphide gas discharged by the general factory of Harbin Pharmaceutical Group was found to be 1,150 times the legal limit in its densely populated neighbourhood – which includes residential compounds, universities and hospitals – the report said. It cited an investigation done two years ago by the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference of Heilongjiang province. The company is one of the world’s biggest manufacturers of antibiotics.

The consultation group reported its findings but no action was taken, CCTV said.

Hydrogen sulphide is classified by the US Department of Labour’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration as “extremely hazardous”. The gas smells of rotten eggs, and in moderate concentrations it can cause respiratory irritation such as coughing, headache, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, staggering and excitability. With high doses, one can quickly lose consciousness and die.

People living near the factory told the state broadcaster that they had been suffering ill effects from the pollution for decades.

The factory was also found to have discharged highly polluted, if not entirely untreated, wastewater into a creek that flows through downtown Harbin, according to the report.

The factory’s water-treatment facility was idle, and some workers reportedly told CCTV’s undercover investigative crew that the necessary devices had been broken for more than a month.

According to the CPPCC survey, the level of chemical oxygen demand – a measure of organic compounds – found in the factory’s discharged  water was 1,180 milligrams per litre, or 10 times the maximum allowed under the mainland’s environmental  regulations.

Calls by the South China Morning Post (SEHK: 0583, announcements, news) to the factory’s administrative office and public relations department went unanswered yesterday, as did calls to its parent company, Harbin Pharmaceutical Group.

For decades, scientists have been trying to find an effective and affordable way to stop pollution from antibiotic factories, to no avail. For that reason, developed countries have closed most of their antibiotic plants and outsourced manufacturing to developing countries such as India and mainland China. But now even India is importing some of its antibiotics from China.

Ma Jun , director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, said pollution was a problem not only for the Harbin factory, but also for the entire pharmaceutical industry on the mainland – as well as for all the big pharmaceutical companies in the world.

In the institute’s database of mainland industrial polluters, pharmaceutical companies constitute a substantial proportion, due to lax government enforcement, Ma said.

Even Indian pharmaceutical manufacturers have exploited administrative loopholes and set up polluting factories here, Ma said. For instance, he said, Aurobindo Pharma, one of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in India, built a factory in Datong , Shanxi , and has heavily polluted the local environment, even though it has been warned several times by local environmental authorities.

Ma said the products exported from the mainland were mostly cheap antibiotics and intermediate products used in the production of expensive drugs by some of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies. “Multinational pharmaceutical companies are not clean. They are at the top of the food chain. They pollute indirectly,” he said.

The Harbin factory says on its website that it is a partner of Pfizer, and records annual sales of US$100 million to more than 40 countries.

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