Monday, January 30, 2012

What is the level of worker safety at Chinese chemical manufacturers?

In the New York Times' series on Apple's manufacturing facilities in China, there are some sad chemical safety stories to be found:
In January 2010, workers at a Chinese factory owned by Wintek, an Apple manufacturing partner, went on strike over a variety of issues, including widespread rumors that workers were being exposed to toxins. Investigations by news organizations revealed that over a hundred employees had been injured by n-hexane, a toxic chemical that can cause nerve damage and paralysis. 
Employees said they had been ordered to use n-hexane to clean iPhone screens because it evaporated almost three times as fast as rubbing alcohol. Faster evaporation meant workers could clean more screens each minute.
I guess they can't get branched alkanes over there? I note that cyclohexane has a boiling point of 80°C, but isohexane's is 60°C.

(Note to any potential Google searchers: Mike Daisey is wrong that hexane is a "potent neurotoxin." Hexane itself is not the neurotoxin, it's the lysine adduct of the hexane metabolite, 2,5-hexanedione. (Not that it really matters to the poor kid whose hands are shaking.))

There's also a passage in the New York Times article about an explosion that killed a number of employees because of ambient aluminum dust from polishing iPad cases:
In its most recent supplier responsibility report, Apple wrote that after the explosion, the company contacted “the foremost experts in process safety” and assembled a team to investigate and make recommendations to prevent future accidents. 
In December, however, seven months after the blast that killed Mr. Lai, another iPad factory exploded, this one in Shanghai. Once again, aluminum dust was the cause, according to interviews and Apple’s most recent supplier responsibility report. That blast injured 59 workers, with 23 hospitalized. 
“It is gross negligence, after an explosion occurs, not to realize that every factory should be inspected,” said Nicholas Ashford, the occupational safety expert, who is now at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “If it were terribly difficult to deal with aluminum dust, I would understand. But do you know how easy dust is to control? It’s called ventilation. We solved this problem over a century ago.”
That's a pretty depressing thing to hear. What is frustrating, just like Ashford says, this is an easily monitored and addressable issue.

It really makes a person wonder about the other, less well-known hazards in Chinese manufacturing. What's the safety record of Wuxi PharmaTech, anyhow? It's my assumption that many Aldrich reagents are made in China -- do they audit their suppliers' safety?

If anyone knows anything about this, please e-mail me or write in the comments. I'd love to hear about it.

11 comments:

  1. I'd also be worried about the safety of patients on clinical trials of leads scaled by Wuxi. A colleague of mine received a sample which was the wrong salt form which caused all sorts of unexpected results in animal studies.

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  2. I heard the Aldrich labs in the US aren't great. Hoods below par, buildings failing apart.

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  3. "Note to any potential Google searchers: Mike Daisey is wrong that hexane is a "potent neurotoxin." Hexane itself is not the neurotoxin, it's the lysine adduct of the hexane metabolite, 2,5-hexanedione. (Not that it really matters to the poor kid whose hands are shaking.)"

    So it's not a toxin, its a pro-toxin.

    For that matter, it's not ethanol that makes you feel like crap the next day, it's the metabolite acetaldehyde.

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    1. Yes, but ethanol has plenty of bioactive effects, too, while I suspect that hexane doesn't bind to much.

      Maybe I'm approaching this incorrectly, but I just find the incorrect usage to be somewhat annoying. Perhaps toxicologists think differently.

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    2. I'm not a toxicologist, and I don't think you're wrong, but I do think that metabolites are as important as the compound itself. That's why you have to get tox data on drug metabolites for the FDA.

      FWIW, it works both ways. If I'm not mistaken, toluene is itself a DNA intercolator just like benzene. However, unlike benzene toluene has a metabolic handle, so your body can clear it as benzoic acid. Benzene is not easily cleared, hence the increased toxicity.

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  4. Yeah, I think the assertion that we "solved the dust problem a century ago" is total BS.

    http://www.prweb.com/releases/2010/06/prweb4144884.htm

    http://cen.acs.org/articles/90/web/2012/01/Combustible-Dust-Deaths.html

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  5. I think it's "hexanes" -- mixture of isomers, plus methylcyclopentane -- probably not pure n-hexane. As for the toxic effects--it's not really a potent neurotoxin (LD50 25g/kg).

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  6. Oh c'mon, who cares? I know I don't.

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  7. hexane is one of several solvents that can have nasty cumulative health effects over the long run if you soak your hands in it every day. A potent neurotoxin it is not (in my book a potent neurotoxin is for example a marine channel blocker plankton toxin made accumulated by fish and mollusks - your lips and tongue start going numb as you are eating a bad fish and then suddenly your muscle quit working, you get carried out of the restaurant on a stretcher)

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  8. At my (US) company we are not allowed to use hexane(s) for column chromatography any more, just heptane. On the other hand, they still let/make the farmworkers fumigate the strawberry crops with freakin' methyl iodide. Can't say our hands are particularly clean...

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  9. Welfare of employees is the need of the hour these days. Many companies make their worker work without giving them proper resources. As a result, accidents, injuries, sickness, and deaths happen due to pressure to keep up the performance. If business owners and employers give priority to their workers profit then one day a workplace will be heaven-like.

    Best Regards,
    Jimmie Menon

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