Nov 15, 2008

Health - China faces new problem: Disposing of tainted milk

Audra Ang

BEIJING – China faces a new problem with the tainted milk that has sickened babies and battered public confidence: How to get rid of the toxic stuff.

It has been burned, buried and mixed into coal. One trash-hauling company dumped a load into a river, turning the waters a frothy white and raising fears about the safety of the drinking water.

Tens of thousands of tons of milk laced with melamine, a chemical used in making fertilizer and plastics, have been pulled from shelves and warehouses since September, and local governments now face the huge — and costly — problem of safely disposing of it.

The Health Ministry has not released a total figure for the amount of impure dairy products recalled or said how much has been destroyed.

But last month alone, more than 32,000 tons — enough to fill about 23 Olympic-sized pools — were disposed of in a single province, Hebei, according to the official Xinhua news agency.

At a factory in the southern city of Guangzhou, tons of contaminated milk powder were incinerated in 3,000-degree heat.

"All the remaining substance will be put into cement," said Wang Fan, director of Guangzhou's food safety office. "I can guarantee that our disposal process meets the national environmental protection requirements. It will not harm people's health."

Getting rid of dangerous contaminants can be challenging even in places far wealthier than China.

In the U.S., a vast array of pharmaceuticals — including antibiotics, anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers and sex hormones — were found in the drinking water supplies of at least 41 million Americans, according to an Associated Press investigation earlier this year that found 24 major metropolitan areas affected. Researchers say the pharmaceutical residues can harm fish, frogs and other aquatic life and may be harmful to people.

In Europe, tests of sewage from several hospitals in Paris and Oslo, Norway, have also uncovered hormones, antibiotics, painkillers and heart and skin medicines.

Not known for making environmental safety a priority, China has gotten generally good marks so far from scientists and environmentalists in its efforts to dispose of the adulterated milk.

With confidence in the government's food safety standards battered by the scandal, Beijing has issued new guidelines on how to destroy the tainted products. They recommend burning the milk in large-capacity incinerators or, if such facilities aren't available, burying small amounts in landfills — as long as local environmental bureaus approve.

Burning or burying breaks down melamine and neutralizes its toxicity, said Peter Ben Embarek, a Geneva-based scientist at the World Health Organization's food safety department.

"We're talking about very large quantities so it's very important that these products are being destroyed in a proper way," he said in a telephone interview.

"Burying is OK if it is done in official, controlled waste disposal sites. We don't want to see products buried in illegal dumping places or places where you don't have a clear understanding of the soil conditions and it might lead to contamination of the water supply," he said.

In China's milk scandal, dairy suppliers are accused of adding melamine, which is high in nitrogen, to watered-down milk to make it appear protein-rich in quality tests that measure nitrogen. Tens of thousands of children were sickened and at least three babies died, according to official figures, although families say the death toll is higher.

Destroying the tainted milk remains a costly challenge. Burning it costs about $100 a ton, said Wang, the Guangzhou food safety official. Putting the milk in landfills is cheaper, he said: About $29 a ton, though there are limits on how much can be buried each day.

At the Jinniu Energy Company in Hebei's Xingtai city, some 1,200 tons of milk powder were incinerated in fiery blasts of over 1,800-degree heat over the past month.

"In the first two or three days, progress was slow due to our lack of experience, but it speeded up," said Wang Jian, a company administrator, adding that the incinerator air was treated to remove pollutants. "The furnace is totally sealed and there is no smoke or smell at all."

At a power plant in the coastal city of Qingdao, some eight tons of milk powder were poured into a towering pile of coal, which was then burned to generate electricity.

"It's a pity we had to burn the milk powder," said a company employee, who would give only his surname, Jing. "But we had no other choice because it was substandard."

There have been violations. In Guangzhou, the local government took over responsibility for disposal after one garbage company poured milk into a city river, said Wang, the food safety official, who declined to name the company but said it was fined $29,000.

The local Yangcheng Evening News said the milk was tossed into a compactor, then fed into the river. "We could see white foam on the water's surface," the report said. "If you stood close by, you could smell the sweet fragrance of the milk."

The dumping prompted calls from residents downstream worried about the safety of the water supply, said a neighborhood committee official who declined to give her name.

While urging an end to such unauthorized disposal, the WHO's Ben Embarek said fish, animals and plant life were most at risk, not people, because the river would dilute the melamine.

"You're disturbing the life cycles and the environment of the river," he said. "You're changing the ecosystem of the river, potentially affecting the life of the fish and the animal and plant life in that river."

Even the public has chimed in with suggestions of ways to get rid of the milk.

Among the recommendations phoned in to Hainan's Nanguo Metropolitan Daily newspaper were feeding it to pigs or using it to water trees — both rejected by local authorities.

"We received many suggestions about how to destroy the problematic milk powder, including making it into fertilizer," said Yang Guang, an official with the Hainan Administration for Industry and Commerce.

In the end, he said, Hainan decided to burn the powder and bury the liquid milk.


Associated Press researchers Yu Bing and Xi Yue in Beijing and Frank Jordans in Geneva contributed to this report.

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