Occupational Health News Roundup

More than 1,200 employees at an acrylic yarn factory in Jilin City, China have reported having troubling symptoms – a list that includes nausea, dizziness, numbness, convulsions, breathing difficulties, and temporary paralysis. Workers suspect fumes from a nearby chemical factory of causing their illness, but Chinese health officials claim it’s mass hysteria. The New York Times’ Andrew Jacobs reports:

As soon as the Jilin Connell Chemical Plant started production this spring, local hospitals began receiving stricken workers from the acrylic yarn factory 100 yards downwind from Connell’s exhaust stacks. On some days, doctors were overwhelmed and patients were put two to a bed.

A clear case of chemical contamination? Not so, say Chinese health officials who contend that the episode is a communal outbreak of psychogenic illness, also called mass hysteria. The blurry vision, muscle spasms and pounding headaches, according to a government report issued in May, were simply psychological reactions to a feared chemical exposure.

At the chemical plant, 34-year-old worker Li Hongwei collapsed and died on the job; factory officials said he had a heart attack and provided a compensation package to his family. The authorities forced Connell to stop production for one month, and not long after it resumed, 38-year-old Wang Shulin went into convulsions while working at the textile mill and died of a brain hemorrhage. Between two deaths and hundreds of mysterious illnesses, it’s no wonder workers are worried – but officials keep insisting the factory’s not to blame.

In other news:

Wall Street Journal: Some of the unions representing airline pilots and flight crews have begun warning their members about “fume events,” which can occur when malfunctions allow contaminated engine air to enter plane cabins.

Washington Post: Prison overcrowding and staffing cuts have led to an increase in inmate assaults on correctional officers.

GlobalPost: Large-scale asbestos mining mostly ended in South Korea in the 1980s; now, the government is struggling to deal with a wave of victims of asbestos-related illnesses, and other Asian nations are likely to face the same challenge.

Grist: Burrito chain Chipotle is sponsoring the movie Food, Inc, which highlights the problems with our current food system – but the company still refuses to sign an agreement with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers committing to paying an extra penny per pound of tomatoes, which would improve exploitative conditions in Florida tomato fields.

Institute of Medicine: An IOM committee found “suggestive but limited evidence” of associations between veterans’ exposure to Agent Orange and other herbicides and an increased chance of developing ischemic heart disease and Parkinson’s.