Du Bin for The New York Times
By ANDREW JACOBS
Published: July 29, 2009
JILIN CITY, China — Tian Lihua was just beginning her morning shift when she felt a wave of nausea, then numbness in her limbs and finally dizziness that gave way to unconsciousness. In the days that followed, more than 1,200 fellow employees at the textile mill where Ms. Tian works would be felled by these and other symptoms, including convulsions, breathing difficulties, vomiting and temporary paralysis.
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Du Bin for The New York Times
From left, Deng Yanli, Tian Lihua and Li Xiuying at Jihua Hospital in Jilin. Ms. Deng told of suffering convulsions and dizziness.
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Du Bin for The New York Times
The Jilin Connell Chemical Plant began producing aniline, a highly toxic chemical used in manufacturing, in the spring.
The New York Times
Textile workers were stricken in the industrial city of Jilin.
“When I finally came to, I could hear the doctors talking but I couldn’t open my eyes,” she said weakly from a hospital bed last month. “They said I had a reaction to unknown substances.”
Ms. Tian and scores of other workers say the “unknown substances” came from a factory across the street that produces aniline, a highly toxic chemical used in the manufacture of polyurethane, rubber, herbicides and dyes.
As soon as the Jilin Connell Chemical Plant started production this spring, local hospitals began receiving stricken workers from the acrylic yarn factory 100 yards downwind from Connell’s exhaust stacks. On some days, doctors were overwhelmed and patients were put two to a bed.
A clear case of chemical contamination? Not so, say 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.
The official diagnosis has done little to ease anxieties in Jilin, an industrial city in northeast China where verdant low-rise mountains form a backdrop to a thicket of smokestacks. More than two months since the health complaints began, at least two dozen people remain hospitalized, and many others insist that they are suffering from toxic poisoning. Local residents say the “mass hysteria” verdict is an attempt to cover up malfeasance.
“How could a psychological illness cause so much pain and misery?” said Zhang Fusheng, a 29-year-old textile worker, gasping as he lay tethered to an oxygen line in the hospital, his limbs seized up and his eyes darting back and forth. “My only wish is to get better so I can go back to work and take care of my family.”
In May more than 1,000 residents blocked railroad tracks in the city for hours to draw attention to the sick workers. Their ire intensified after the State Administration of Work Safety posted a statement on its Web site describing the problem as a “chemical leak” and advising other companies to learn from Connell Chemical’s mistake. After a few hours, however, the statement had been removed.
“We are simply laboratory mice in Connell’s chemical experiment,” said Xie Shaofeng, 34, a textile worker whose wife remains hospitalized.
The episode comes at a time of rising environmental degradation in China brought on by decades of heady growth and lax pollution controls. Although many people here have long lived with sullied air and water, they are increasingly aware of the toll that they take on human health and are demanding greater restrictions on noxious industries.
Fear of contamination was heightened last fall after the government acknowledged that thousands of children had been made ill by milk adulterated with melamine, an ingredient used in the manufacture of plastics.
The Ministry of Health in Beijing declined to provide details of their findings in Jilin, but according to local officials, investigators found no evidence of organ damage that would point to chemical exposure. They added that those claiming to be sick had been in different parts of the sprawling textile factory and offered inconsistent descriptions of the odor of what they said caused their symptoms.
Although they say those who fell ill in Jilin could have been poisoned, psychogenic experts outside China say it is also possible for some to have been affected by toxic fumes while others exhibited psychosomatic illnesses set off by real poisonings.
Robert E. Bartholomew, a sociologist at the International University College of Technology in Malaysia, said the government’s handling of the episode, including the ban on reports in the news media, might be fueling paranoia. “The best way to handle psychogenic illness is to be open and transparent, which tends to dissipate concerns,” said Mr. Bartholomew, a co-author of “Outbreak! The Encyclopedia of Extraordinary Social Behavior.” If it is indeed a case of mass hysteria, he said, it would be the largest instance of workplace psychogenic illness on record.
The episode is not Jilin’s first experience with the perils of aniline. In 2005, an explosion at another factory that produced the volatile substance killed eight people and sent 100 tons of deadly benzene and nitrobenzene into the Songhua River, tainting drinking water for millions of people downstream.
Public anxiety was high even before the new $125 million aniline plant opened in early April. During a test run last September, two security guards standing in front of the textile plant were overcome by fumes. Connell paid them compensation, although it is unclear what adjustments were made to the manufacturing process and, more important, the venting of its airborne byproducts, a mix of carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide and nitrogen oxide.
Shortly after production began, Li Hongwei, a 34-year-old Connell worker, collapsed and died on the job. Although rumors suggested that he had been poisoned, factory officials insist that Mr. Li succumbed to a heart attack. His family, which received a compensation package that included a job for his wife and a monthly $200 stipend for his mother and son, declined to talk to reporters.
After Mr. Li’s death, the authorities forced Connell to halt production for a month. But in early June, not long after it resumed, Wang Shulin, a 38-year-old technician at the textile mill, went into convulsions while on the job. He was sent to the hospital but died just as doctors were administering a CT scan, according to co-workers. The cause of death was a brain hemorrhage.
Factory officials insist that Mr. Wang’s death had nothing to do with chemical exposure.
Such assurances have done little to quiet fears that Connell continues to taint the air. Li Jingfeng, 35, an electrician at an ethanol plant that abuts the aniline plant, said chemical detectors at his factory had gone off five or six times in the last month, forcing workers to evacuate. “Everyone is nervous about what’s coming out of that place,” he said.
Those who continue to insist that they were poisoned have placed local officials in a difficult position. Some patients have been sent to other cities for treatment; those who refuse to leave local hospitals say doctors have been given orders to stop their medication. To get the skittish back to work, factory officials have added an incentive of $20 to $30 to monthly salaries that range from $120 to $200.
In interviews, a half-dozen of those still hospitalized in Jilin said they had not been given a diagnosis nor were they allowed to see their medical records. One of them, Deng Yanli, 30, who is troubled by convulsions and constant dizziness, showed a receipt for 10 medications that included vitamin injections, pills to combat nausea and other treatments commonly given to stroke victims. She said doctors at Jihua Hospital stopped administering the drugs in early June in an effort to get her to leave.
The hospital director referred questions to the Jilin City Health Bureau, which issued a statement saying, “We have done our best diagnosing and treating these patients.”
Officials at Connell, which has resumed full production, say they are eager to move past the episode. Although privately owned, the plant has a complicated corporate structure that includes investors from Hong Kong and a number of local government officials. The aniline plant and the neighboring textile mill are partly owned by one another, and Connell, according to a company Web site, also runs a pharmaceutical concern that supplies Jilin City hospitals with 90 percent of their intravenous drugs.
Cementing the company’s prominence is its president, Song Zhiping, a representative to the National People’s Congress, China’s legislative body.
Connell executives said Ms. Song was traveling during a reporter’s visit to their offices, but Xu Zhongjie, vice chairman for corporate governance, said Ms. Song felt wounded by the allegations against her company, which he described as preposterous. “I come here every day, and do I look sick?” he asked with a broad smile. “If we were spreading poison, the government wouldn’t allow us to continue production, and I have faith in the government.”
Xiyun Yang contributed research.