THEY CALLED IT “banana oil.” Long Li didn't ask what was in it. All she knew was that she was supposed to use it to clean cell phone screens, hundreds of them every hour. Fumes filled the air in the windowless room where she worked, in a three-story factory outside the southeastern China city of Dongguan.
Long, the 18-year-old daughter of peasant farmers from Guizhou, was supposed to dip her rubber-gloved right index finger into the oil and then rub each screen for 10 to 20 seconds. The company—Fangtai Huawei Electronic Technology—gave Long and her coworkers paper masks, but they rarely used them. They were too hot, and anyway the women who worked there often exhaled onto the screens because the condensed moisture from their breath made cleaning easier. Long worked from 8 am until 11 pm, and as late as 4 am in the busy season.
...But if working conditions were improving at Chinese factories, Long did not see it. Soon after she began working at Fangtai Huawei, her fingertips started tingling. After a few months, her feet and hands were numb. Long couldn't hold the screens properly. Her coworkers started getting sick too—Zi Renchun, a 25-year-old from Yunnan province, lost her appetite. Shang Jiaojiao, who had begun working at age 14, had joint pain and eventually could barely lift herself out of bed. By summer, some of the workers were collapsing.
In mid-July, Long found herself unable to move her legs. “I was just lying on my bed all day and needed help to eat,” she says. Long ended up in a hospital in Guangzhou with more than 30 other Fangtai Huawei workers. Doctors found they'd been exposed to n-hexane, presumably in the “banana oil.” It's an industrial solvent that causes neurological damage at just 50 parts per million. Workers using it are supposed to wear respirators and operate in a ventilated area. As treatment, Long endured daily injections—she says they “hurt more than anything else in the world.” We interviewed her in a hotel a few blocks from the hospital; officials there wouldn't answer our questions or allow us to see her on the premises. Long still tries to stay cheerful. “When I cry,” she says, “I cry secretly.”Another one that I'm rather horrified by, from the same article:
In 2007, when he was 20 years old, Ming Kunpeng began working at a factory then owned by Dutch company ASM International—a leading manufacturer of assembly equipment for computer chips, phones, and tablets. For two years, Ming cleaned motherboards with chemicals including benzene, a sweet-smelling and particularly effective industrial solvent and degreaser. It is also a carcinogen. Where people still use it, the International Labour Organization recommends wearing helmets with a face piece blowing clean air and gloves made of Viton, an expensive heat- and chemical-resistant fluoroelastomer. Ming Kunpeng says he was given only masks and standard gloves.
In 2009 he was diagnosed with leukemia from benzene exposure, according to medical records. But as recently as 2013, changes to China's health care system continued to make health care untenable for him—and many others with work-related problems. When the family asked ASM for compensation, the company refused to pay, disputing the cause.A good reminder that chronic solvent exposure is bad (if you needed a reminder) and why the regulatory state (despite all of its many, many faults) manages to keep us from getting leukemia and other neurological damages.
(Is it really necessary to hand-clean screens and motherboards with
UPDATE: DoD comments, and I reclarify what I meant above. (added "hand", which is what I was really getting at.)