Cadmium (Cd), is a silvery white coloured heavy metal. Resistant to corrosion and abrasion, it is a common carcinogenic chemical with a soft texture that is extremely elastic. It is non-degradable and therefore poses an environmental hazard when discarded as industrial waste. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies cadmium and its compounds as Group 1 of carcinogen for humans.[1] When inhaled, cadmium is eliminated from the human body via urine. However, the amount of cadmium excreted daily in this manner is very small. It represents only about 0.005 – 0.01% of the total body burden which corresponds to a biological half-life for cadmium of about 20-40 years.[2] Consequently cadmium causes long-term damage to many organs and tissues, especially the kidneys and skeletal structure. In Japan cadmium related diseases were called Itai-itai disease, with ‘itai’ means ‘painful’. The severe bone pains induced by cadmium poisoning caused such distress that victims would cry out “Pain! Pain!”<!--more-->

In July 2006, concerns about the toxicity of cadmium led the European Union (EU) to ban the production of electrical appliances and electrical goods that contain cadmium along with the import of nickel cadmium batteries.[3]

Cadmium oxide, which is red in colour, is chiefly used in the manufacturing of nickel cadmium batteries, whose chief application is making negative electrodes to transmit electric current.

In 2004 China produced half of the world’s batteries, 80 percent of which were for export.[4] This was the result of the relocation of the industry - along with many other industries - to China from the rest of the world. In that year China exported 800 million nickel cadmium batteries, a rise of 67 percent over the 1999 level. China has thus also become greatest consumer of cadmium as well: in 2004 China consumed half of the world’s cadmium production, 70 to 80 percent of which was destined for nickel cadmium batteries.[5]

We Are All Connected

--Environmental Degradation by Cadmium

In December 2003 The Gold Peak Batteries claimed in its internal bulletin Sylva Express that “the management always pays extra attention to industry safety. And the Industry Safety and Environmental Protection Committees was respectively established in the Hong Kong headquarters and its subsidiaries in Mainland China. These committees are devoted to promoting workers’ consciousness of industry safety, improving designs of machines and providing workers with a safe working condition.”[6]

A report published in Mingpao, a Hong Kong daily, on July 4, 2004, half a year after Sylva Express’ boastful claim, deeply embarrassed the company. The report’s title was “Local Villagers Suffers the Disaster of Cadmium Oxide Pollution from GP Battery Factory”:

“The incident of cadmium poisoning in the Hong Kong-invested factory tends to overspread. Yesterday, many villagers nearby the factory reported that they were tested with excessive levels of urinary cadmium. It means that besides employees of the factory, the local villagers also became victims. Now, the villagers and households nearby were quite nervous. Many of them dare not drink tap water. By far, Huizhou municipality doesn’t take any step to handle the situation.”

“Huizhou Power Pack is situated at Dashulin Village, Xiaojinkou Town, Huizhou city. There are about 3,000 villagers and migrants. A motorcycle driver whose family name was Zhu told the reporter that last week he went to the battery factory to ask for a job. He was found with minor excessive cadmium level. Mr. Zhu was confused. He wondered why he, too, had excessive cadmium, since he wasn’t an employee of the factory before. Then he learnt that many villagers had the same problem.”

A nearby kindergarten was so afraid of possible cadmium poisoning that it moved away as soon as possible.

On July 22 Green Peace sent a team to investigate the community around the Advance Battery. Mingpao reported on its finding on October 4:

“The sewage, the sediments in sewage and dust samples outside the Advance Battery all contain high concentrated heavy metal cadmium, which can cause cancer. The level of cadmium in sewage is more than 19 times the permitted level both in Hong Kong and Mainland China. The possibility that the battery factory might have caused the pollution cannot be excluded. (Green Peace) demanded the factory provide an explanation. Cadmium in sediments and dust was 100 to 7000 times the permitted level.”

The following day the Gold Peak Industrial (holding) Ltd. issued a statement, declaring “the Environmental Protection Bureau of the Huizhou government has been carrying out periodic checks and inspection on the factory’s facilities, including the cadmium level of the industrial waste water. Our industrial wastewater treatment system and discharge have been certified as compliant with the relevant standards. ”

What the GP statement left out was domestic sewage from the factories. We obtained the November 8, 2004 minutes of a joint meeting between the management of Power Pack and a representative from the Hong Kong Productivity Council. According to the minutes, “Power Pack discharged its domestic sewage without any treatment; for instance, laundry wastewater is directly discharged into rivers and lakes.” Let us not forget that the uniforms worn by workers were full of cadmium dust, and laundry wastewater probably contained a considerably high level of cadmium as well.

The Gold Peak case is by no means an isolated incident. The New Sci-Tech District in Wuxi, which houses many Japanese factories, including WMB, reported that since its founding, local people noticed the extinction of birds in the neighborhood. They also reported that the surrounding river turns black.

An unanimous article was posted on the well known website Tianya, reporting an inside story about battery producers:

“Once I had a private conversation with an engineer of a top nickel-cadmium battery manufacturer, discussing how they treat the cadmium oxide wastewater. He mused for a moment and said, ‘no manufacturer will spend too much money in treating wastewater. Most times we just do it half-heartedly. The local government simply turns a blind eye to this because we are one of the biggest taxpayers. Sometimes, wastewater is directly discharged without any treatment at all. By and large, the soils around the factory were polluted.’ If even the top battery producer behaves like this, then what would those lesser producers do? I cannot help feel sorry for Huai River. Despite billions of yuan having been pumped into the project of treating pollution in Huai River, the pollution is getting more and more serious.”[7]

Pollution is not limited to the Huai River. The whole Pearl River Delta has been polluted by heavy metals, including cadmium. According to the investigation into the soil conducted by State Environmental Protection Administration of China, four-tenths of the farms and vegetable plots in the Pearl River Delta have been polluted by heavy metals. For example, in Zhongshan City, the concentration of cadmium, nickel and copper in vegetable plots were 50%, 43% and 10.9% above the permitted level respectively. A random sampling of vegetables by the Zhongshan Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that they carried cadmium that was 9.9 percent over the permitted level.[8] These vegetables are transported to cities throughout the Delta. Earlier, the Consumer Council in Zhongshan noticed that the cadmium exceeded the permitted level in five aquatic products including freshwater clams, scallop, oyster, clam and cuttlefish. The volume of cadmium in scallops is 33 times over the permitted level.[9]

China may not be the worst country in the lax enforcement of laws on occupational safety and environmental protection in the world. The fact that China consumes half of the world production of cadmium and its combination with lax enforcement of laws implies the gigantic scale of the cadmium pandemic which no other countries can compare, though.

But the cadmium pandemic, a result of the shifting of battery production to China, does not only affect the Chinese people. The legacy of the cadmium battery industry is that it contaminates even after the factory is shut down, as the Wall Street Journal reported:

“The near-disappearance of the American cadmium-battery industry can be understood from a visit to an overgrown field in Cold Spring, N.Y. Here, the Marathon Battery factory churned out nickel-cadmium batteries for the U.S. military for three decades. After the plant was shuttered in 1979, the cadmium-laden ground became one of the nation's highest-profile superfund sites, sparking a $130 million clean-up and a class-action lawsuit by nearby residents that was settled for millions of dollars in 1998.”[10]

Moreover, cadmium travels around the world in the form of consumer goods, especially toys. In the United States this has resulted in recalls of a number of metallic toy jewelry items by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. In 2006 high level of nickel, cadmium, copper and zinc was found in a bracelet exported by China which was hazardous to children’s health.[11]

A month after the Wall Street Journal reported on GP case the same Journal reported that

“TOYS 'R' US Inc. said it will begin phasing out nickel-cadmium batteries, the making of which has caused widespread environmental contamination in China and poisoned hundreds of factory workers.

Most of the new safety initiatives aim to protect the health of the consumers. The cadmium-battery phase-out is a sign that toy retailers are also under pressure to consider the health of the workers and citizens of China, where the majority of the world's toys are made.

Some toy makers, including Hasbro Inc., have already launched their own bans on cadmium batteries.”[12]

It is obvious that neither the shifting of cadmium battery production from the West to China, nor the 2006 banning of electrical appliances which contain cadmium in EU, nor the action of TOYS 'R' US Inc. to phase out nickel-cadmium batteries, is enough to keep those countries safe from cadmium contamination. It is going to haunt workers, consumers and the general public for a long time to come if we do not do something about the cadmium pandemic in China. It is time for us to campaign for extending the EU ban on cadmium products to China and the rest of the world.