Emissions at BYD plant linked to children’s nosebleeds

Reports find shortcomings in BYD’s environmental practices but no evidence has yet been found directly connecting the plant in question and a mysterious illness that struck local school children.

BYD's Changsha plant has suspended operation for now. Photo from CFP

BYD's Changsha plant has suspended operation for now. Photo from CFP

By Staff reporters


Automaker BYD is under all kinds of pressure after local parents claimed that nocturnal pollution from its Changsha plant had made their children sick.

The parents say a paint-like odor from the factory after dark has worsened since March, when production was stepped up. The nosebleeds, dizziness and nausea suffered by more than twenty children at a local primary school began in April.

No conclusion can yet be drawn as to whether pollutants from the plant caused the nosebleeds, but previous inspections found fault with emissions practices at the factory. In December last year, the regime at the BYD plant was reported to be ineffective against volatile organic compounds (VOCs) found in paint sprays.

Burden of proof

“It is a confirmed fact that we can smell paint at home. Both BYD and the environmental authorities acknowledge this. BYD has taken no action since the December report. VOCs are being emitted into the atmosphere,” said a representative of local residents.

Autoworkers often have abnormal blood readings after several years of painting cars, and it is easy to cut corners, especially at night. VOCs are known to irritate the eyes, nose, skin and throat. They cause dizziness, lethargy, headaches, nausea, shortness of breath and skin problems. High levels of exposure damage the kidneys, liver and lungs, as well as the central nervous system.

BYD claims that the Changsha plant passed three inspections in March. VOC readings of around 45 milligrams per cubic meter were within the 50-milligram standard. Residents say that samples were taken during the day and that the national standard is 40 milligrams.

Even when total VOCs meet that standard, 24 compounds may still be at high enough levels to pose a risk to public health, but the level of proof of a causal relationship is very high. More tests are needed to determine the cause of the nosebleeds. Investigators are still amassing evidence and it might be months before they report.

Even if BYD is found liable, these kinds of lawsuits usually drag on for years if not decades. It is often easier for companies to be fined or sued than to change their practices or tech. It was more than two years after the first 737 Max crash before Boeing reached a US$2.5 billion settlement while knowing all along that they were at fault. It took investigators years to discover that cheating on emissions tests was the norm among carmakers. The list of movies, novels and TV series documenting the endless struggles of ordinary people in search of justice is a very long one.

Very big questions

Production at the Changsha plant has been suspended, but for how long? The company has promised people living around the plant that there will be an “improvement” but it will take months for new equipment to be installed.

BYD is on a triumphal run this year. While other carmakers posted lower than expected results, BYD has sold five times more cars than in the same period last year. Many thousands of people work at the plant and the job market is not what it used to be. At no time in recent history have China’s manufacturing workers been so grateful to have any job at all.

BYD did not respond to requests for comments.