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Air pollution kills more people each year than smoking — but it’s not the only dangerous pollutant you encounter on a daily basis

Air pollution kills more people each year than smoking — but it’s not the only dangerous pollutant you encounter on a daily basis

Today marks the 35th annual World Environment Day, a global event spearheaded by the United Nations that aims to increase worldwide action to help protect our environment.

Humans excel at consuming resources and creating waste. Not only does man-made pollution – in all its myriad forms – negatively impact the planet’s climate and ecosystems, it can also be deadly.

Burning fossil fuels like oil and natural gas, for instance, emits harmful air pollutants like benzene (a chemical linked to childhood leukemia and blood disorders) and formaldehyde (a known carcinogen). Plus, it sends large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere – which leads more heat to get trapped on Earth.

Every year on World Environment Day, the UN campaigns to raise awareness about environmental issues like marine pollution, carbon emissions, and overpopulation. In 2019, their focus is air pollution, which causes 8.8 million deaths annually worldwide.

When we think of pollution, smog, oil spills, and litter often come to mind. But there are other, less obvious pollutants that people spread all the time.

Here are 19 different types of pollution that impact the environment – and human health – every day.


When we think of pollution, images of cars, factories, and power plants spewing dark plumes typically come to mind. That’s air pollution, essentially, and it’s mostly made up of carbon dioxide and methane.

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Aisha, 11, carries coal to be used for cooking and heating from a brick-making factory in Jalalabad, December 17, 2013.
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Reuters

Most emissions of CO2 and methane come from burning fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas. As these emissions of greenhouse gases add up, they trap more heat on the planet, rather than letting it dissipate into space – leading to global warming.

Burning fossil fuels also sends carcinogenic particles into the air.


Factories and gas-powered vehicles also produce other air pollutants like nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, and hydrocarbons. These chemicals can react with sunlight to create smog.

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Cyclists wearing masks ride along a road in heavy smog on December 23, 2015 in Zhengzhou, China.
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VCG/VCG via Getty Images

Currently, 91% of the world’s population lives in places where the air quality does not meet the standards for safety set by the World Health Organization.

In some parts of the world, like China and India, smog can get so thick that people can’t see the sun and have to wear masks.


Sometimes those nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide chemicals can react with the moisture in the atmosphere and change into acids. That water-chemical mixture then returns to Earth as acid rain.

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Woods near the Jizera Mountains in the Czech Republic are near death from acid rain.
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Wikimedia Commons

Acid rain can kill trees and devastate lakes and streams. The addition of too much acid rain to a body of water makes it too acidic for fish and other marine life to survive.


Another air pollutant is called chlorofluorocarbon (CFC), a type of chemical used in foam products, aerosol cans, and refrigerator coolants.

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Most atmospheric ozone is concentrated about 9 to 18 miles above the Earth.
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Blue Cat Studio/Shutterstock

CFCs rip holes in the planet’s ozone layer, a region of the upper atmosphere that absorbs harmful radiation from the sun and protects species on Earth. Without an ozone layer, people would be exposed to high levels of ultraviolet radiation and be more likely to develop skin cancer and eye diseases.

The Montreal Protocol, an environmental agreement that 197 nations have ratified, calls for the phasing out of ozone-depleting substances like CFCs. The US signed the accord in 1988.


But not all ozone is “good.” While atmospheric ozone protects the Earth from radiation, ozone that forms at ground level is harmful to human health.

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If we breathe in ground-level ozone, it can be harmful to our respiratory health.
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Onfokus/Getty

Ground-level ozone, or tropospheric ozone, is a result of chemical reactions when sunlight interacts with pollutants emitted by cars, power plants, industrial boilers, and refineries.

This type of ozone is can trigger a variety of breathing problems, particularly for children and the elderly, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Breathing in ground-level ozone can reduce a person’s lung function and harm lung tissue, exacerbating conditions like emphysema and asthma.

It’s one of the main ingredients in smog, too.


Exposure to polluted air in general can trigger asthma, change the way children’s brains develop, and make older adults more likely to succumb to cognitive decline.

Studies conducted in China and Canada show that children who breathe poor air are more likely to have breathing difficulties and asthma. A study involving New York City schoolchildren also found that kids who breathe poor air are more likely to need academic intervention.

Research in the US shows that dementia and cognitive decline rates are higher in places with more air pollution as well.


Researchers recently calculated that air pollution contributes to an estimated 8.8 million extra deaths globally every year — nearly double previous estimates.

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Young students and their parents wearing masks walk along a street on a hazy day in Harbin, China, November 3, 2015.
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China Stringer Network/Reuters

The new study, published in March, also showed that nearly 800,000 Europeans died from air pollution-derived issues in 2015 alone; 48% of those deaths were from cardiovascular disease and stroke.


In addition to greenhouse gases, human activity also creates light pollution.

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The city that never sleeps contributes to a lot of light pollution.
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Shutterstock

If you look at the night sky in Times Square, you won’t see any stars. That’s because the area has an enormous amount of light pollution.

Light pollution is the excessive use of artificial light, including the brightening of the sky over inhabited areas (called skyglow). It’s a category that also includes glare, the excessive brightness to the point of visual discomfort.

For many of us, light pollution means we’re no longer experiencing truly dark nights. According to the International Dark Sky Association, artificial light at night increases our risk for obesity, depression, sleep disorders, diabetes, and breast cancer. It also suppresses melatonin production, a hormone that induces sleep and boosts the immune system.


Global light pollution is so bad that more than one-third of humanity can’t see the Milky Way — ever.

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Google Earth/Fabio Falchi et al.

According to a 2016 study, 80% of the world’s population lives under skyglow. In the United States and Europe, 99% of the public lives under light-polluted skies.


Another subtle form of pollution that you might not think much about is noise pollution.

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Imagine how loud thousands of mopeds side by side would be.
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REUTERS/Nicky Loh

Honking car horns, wailing sirens, and chugging trains all contribute to the levels of ambient noise that surround us.

The EPA defines noise pollution as an excess of a type of sound that’s “unwanted or disturbing.” According to the agency, there are direct links between noise and poorer health. Problems related to prolonged exposure to excessive noise include stress-related illnesses, high blood pressure, hearing loss, sleep disruption, and loss of productivity.


A 2011 report found that at least 1 million healthy years of life are lost each year in Europe due to noise pollution.

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New York City has a very strict noise code.
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eliduke / Creative Commons

The report, published by the World Health Organization, ranked traffic noise as one of the worse environmental threats to public health, second only to air pollution.


And then there’s the solid waste that humans create.

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Children swim in a polluted river nearby a garbage dump in Rawalpindi, Pakistan.
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Caren Firouz/Reuters

A 2012 report from the World Bank’s Urban Development department estimated that by 2025, the amount of municipal solid waste generated worldwide would rise to 2.4 billion tons.

Most of that garbage comes from organic waste, like food. Nearly 60% of it goes into landfills.


Landfills leak harmful pollutants like methane into the air and leachate into nearby soil and groundwater.

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A bulldozer moves trash atop of a 300-feet tall hill at the Simi Valley Landfill and Recycling Center in Simi Valley, California, May 8, 2008.
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Hector Mata/Reuters

Over time, the organic waste languishing in landfills breaks down and produces methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change.

What’s more, some of the solid waste in landfills can release harmful toxins that leach into the soil. Fluorescent lightbulbs release mercury, for example, while electronics like computers and dead batteries can leak arsenic and lead.

Another major pollutant from landfills is called leachate – it’s a liquid cocktail that forms when water seeps through landfill waste and collects toxins. Leachate can include various toxic pollutants, heavy metals, and ammonia-nitrogen compounds that are toxic for aquatic life, according to the Water Quality Association.


Humans have been dumping an unprecedented amount of plastic into the ocean, too. On average, 8.8 million tons of plastic enters the ocean every year.

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A boy in the Philippines collects plastic materials near a polluted coastline to sell in Manila.
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Cheryl Ravelo/Reuters

That’s just the average amount, though – the maximum could be closer to 14 million tons.


These plastics accumulate in polluted patches of the ocean like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

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The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is located between Hawaii and California.
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The Ocean Cleanup

Plastic in the ocean threatens marine life – animals sometimes confuse the items for food and consume them. This can cause them to change their behavior, suffer strangulation, and die.


Some plastics take hundreds of years to break down. Even then, they just splinter into very small pieces called microplastics, which will likely never biodegrade.

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Microplastics have been found everywhere, even in human poop.
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Hero Images/Getty

These microplastics are everywhere – including the food we eat and beverages we drink. They even show up in our poop, according to the Smithsonian Institute.

That’s because the fish and shellfish we eat ingest these microplastics. According to a 2013 study, marine animals can accumulate potentially hazardous chemicals from eating those plastics, and can get tumors and liver problems because of it.

Those chemicals then move up the food chain.


Oil spills from tankers and off-shore drilling also pollute the ocean.

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There have been more than 9,500 tanker oil spills worldwide since 1967.
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Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The Exxon Valdez tanker famously hemorrhaged 11 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Alaska in 1989, while the Deepwater Horizon disaster dumped some 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico over the course of 87 days in 2010.

Only 25% of the leaked oil from Deepwater Horizon was recovered, leaving more than 154 million gallons in the ocean. It harmed or killed an estimated 82,000 birds, 6,100 sea turtles, and 25,900 marine mammals, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.


While oil spills are unintended forms of pollution, humans have intentionally dumped toxic chemicals like methylmercury into the water, too.

Between 1932 to 1968, a Japanese fertilizer company called the Chisso Corporation dumped industrial wastewater that was contaminated with an estimated 30 tons of poisonous methylmercury into Minamata Bay.

The toxic chemical accumulated in local fish and shellfish, which Japanese citizens consumed. This led them to suffer from a condition called Minamata disease, which wreaks havoc on the brain and nervous system and causes physical deformities.


Other toxic pollutants come in the form of fertilizers, pesticides, and insecticides that are used for ranching or farming and can accumulate in soil.

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A farmer sprays pesticide containing monocrotophos on a paddy field west of Agartala, capital of India’s northeastern state of Tripura, July 25, 2013.
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REUTERS/Jayanta Dey

A report by the European Commission noted that some soils are contaminated by asbestos, a chemical linked to lung cancer.


Sometimes, those chemicals can move from the soil to a major water source via run-off.

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Most run-off also carries agricultural fertilizers and pesticides into the ocean.
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Wikimedia Commons

Run-off is when water – and the contaminants it contains – moves across and through the soil, eventually joining local waterways that can flow into the ocean.

Run-off can accumulate motor oil, solid waste, pesticides, and fertilizers, and bring those toxic chemicals along for the ride.

According to NOAA, 80% of pollution to the marine environment comes from run-off from the surrounding land. Septic tanks, cars, trucks, boats, farms, and ranches all contribute to polluted run-off.


When humans log an area, the absence of trees leads to even more run-off.

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In the absence of trees, which anchor the soil with their roots, widespread erosion can occur throughout tropical areas like the Amazon.
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Mario Tama/Getty

Deforestation contributes to soil erosion, which increases the amount of polluted run-off that flows into rivers and streams. That worsens flooding.

Every year, more than 18 million acres of forest disappear worldwide. That’s about 27 soccer fields’ worth every minute, according to the World Wildlife Fund.


Pollutants from farms, septic systems, and industrial sites can also leach into the ground water we drink.

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If ground water is contaminated with toxic chemicals, it can be harmful to human health.
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Irada Humbatova/Reuters

Pesticides, fertilizers, herbicides and animal waste are agricultural sources of groundwater contamination, while wastewater disposal systems can also leak human waste into the groundwater and nearby drinking water wells.

Ground water supplies drinking water for 51% of the total US population and 99% of the country’s rural population.


Industrial manufacturing and mining operations are a primary source of groundwater pollution. Often, industrial waste contaminates the water with arsenic, lead, mercury, and chromium 6 — all known carcinogens.

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Aerial view of oil refinery and petrochemical plant at dusk, Bangkok, Thailand.
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Kittikorn Nimitpara/Getty

Chemical companies release the most contaminants, the Center of Public Integrity reported. Plastics and rubber manufacturers, mining companies, and producers of petroleum and coal take the rest of the top polluting spots.

These types of heavy metals can cause gastrointestinal, respiratory, reproductive, and developmental problems in humans.

Industrial activities also release dioxins – known carcinogens that have been linked to heart disease and diabetes, according to the National Institutes of Health.


Radioactive waste is yet another form of pollution that has devastating health effects on humans and wildlife.

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Workers place a container with spent highly-enriched uranium on a truck at a nuclear research facility in Kiev March 24, 2012.
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REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

Radioactive pollution occurs when radioactive substances are released into the environment. This can be caused by nuclear weapons testing, production, and decommissioning; nuclear explosions; and the handling and disposal of radioactive waste.

Accidents at nuclear power plants like Chernobyl and Fukushima have also contributed to radioactive pollution in the surrounding air and water.


The Chernobyl disaster, for example, contaminated vast areas of Europe and Eurasia, and the wildlife living in the area.

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Stray dogs hang out near an abandoned cooling tower at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on August 18, 2017. Many dogs in the exclusion zone are likely the descendants of dogs left behind after 1986 disaster.
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Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Chernobyl released 400 times more radioactivity into the atmosphere than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The 2011 Fukushima disaster, by comparison, released only one-tenth as much radioactive material, the Conversation reported. Still, after Fukushima, fish off the Japanese coast had elevated levels of radiation, which prompted the Japanese government to ban or limit their sale.

Animals at both sites now have smaller and less diverse populations. Birds and other mammals at Chernobyl have cataracts in their eyes and smaller brains, according to a 2016 study. Some birds have malformed sperm or are sterile.


Exposure to high amounts of radioactive material like cesium is detrimental to humans. Cesium can cause radiation sickness, which includes nausea and vomiting in the short-term and sometimes death in the following days or weeks.

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REUTERS/Toru Hanai

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, radiation exposure can also result in long-term health effects like cancer and cardiovascular disease.

Forever young: China’s ‘dancing aunties’ kick up their heels

Forever young: China’s ‘dancing aunties’ kick up their heels

IN a sparkling white cap and oversized sunglasses, 55-year-old retiree Zhang Yongli and dozens of neighbours liven up a Shanghai park by doing the jitterbug, part of a public dance craze that has become China’s national pastime.

Every day, an estimated more than 100 million people – dubbed “dancing aunties” as they are primarily older women – take over squares and parks to tango, waltz, and grind out everything from flamenco to Chinese traditional dance.

Complaints over speakers blaring late at night have ensued, and even physical brawls pitting aunties against others vying for park turf.

But toes are tapping to an ever-quickening beat as “square dancing”  – as it is known in China – booms.

Teams are competing in dance-offs featuring thousands of contestants, while a thriving market of dance-related paraphernalia and mobile apps catches the attention of the business world.

Even the government has jumped on the bandwagon to extol the health benefits.

“Square dancing happens wherever there is a square,” said Wang Guangcheng, a fitness instructor and choreographer who helps the government devise dance routines and is widely known as China’s “Square Dance Prince”.

“It has become a venue for the masses to exercise.”

More than 240 million Chinese are 60 or older, a number expected to double by 2050.

By then, the government estimates China will be spending more than one-quarter of GDP on elderly care and medical services, compared to around 7% in 2015, placing increasing importance on healthy, active lifestyles.

Zhang “was sitting at home, doing nothing” after retiring five years ago from her travel-agency job, undergoing treatment for diabetes, high blood pressure and cholesterol.

“Since I started dancing, my (health) indicators are now normal. I no longer need medication,” she said as her neighbourhood dance group’s red skirts twirled in Shanghai’s Zhongshan Park.

“I also look younger,” said Zhang, who has jitterbugged away 11 kilograms (24 pounds) of bodyweight.

A 2016 national fitness plan stresses “square dancing” as a team sport to be “vigorously developed” and last year it became an official event at China’s National Games along with old reliables like athletics and swimming.

Local contests are proliferating.

Shanghai retiree Li Zhenhua’s team worked with a professional instructor for weeks, enduring the winter chill and the summer heat of their local square to train for a months-long citywide contest that culminated in August.

The team, drawn mostly from China’s ethnic Korean minority, took the title with their traditional Korean dances, beating out 750 other troupes.

“I was happy to find a Korean ethnic dance team in Shanghai, not only to exercise and dance but also to pass along our ethnic culture,” Li said.

Mass public dancing took root after the 1949 Communist takeover as the government organised communal activities to foster unity and loyalty to the party.

But it has really taken off lately as an increasingly prosperous China finds more leisure time, and nearly every neighbourhood park or square today is enlivened by dancers availing themselves of the free exercise.

Taobao, the leading Chinese e-commerce site owned by Alibaba, and other businesses are expressly targeting the new market to sell clothing, speakers, and gadgets for watching and learning new dances, and market studies say the industry is booming.

Han Xiaoyuan, 28, founded a mobile platform for organising competitions and purchasing gear. User numbers quintupled over the past two years to more than 500,000.

It is also one of many business initiatives seeking to tap into the wider “silver economy” represented by dancers, by selling travel packages, financial services and other products geared towards retirees.

Han said the elderly “have time (and) money…. They are our best business target group”.

Square dancing is even changing age-old gender dynamics, as grandmothers are often away training for long stretches.

“Several of our team members’ husbands have learned to change diapers and taken over feeding the grandchildren as a way of supporting us,” said 65-year-old Hong Aizhen, a competitor in the Shanghai-wide contest.

But many men are showing off their dance moves as well.

Late one recent weekend, hundreds of people filled a tree-lined park in central Shanghai amid a cacophony of musical styles as men and women waltzed or formed conga lines, and children did the cha-cha.

Often, they dance to old Chinese revolutionary standards or other patriotic tunes. “We are not only delivering a fitness culture, but also the concept of a prosperous country,” said choreographer Wang. “Many songs we choose express our national characteristics and values.”

But dance enthusiast Zhang prefers the zesty jitterbug. “It’s quick and rhythmic. I forget all my worries when I dance, sometimes even my age,” she said. – AFP Relaxnews

Ineffective vaccines made in China ignites fury

Ineffective vaccines made in China ignites fury

A health scandal in China has seen dozens of officials sacked or disciplined because of problems with vaccines, generated protests from angry parents, and led anxious mainland residents to book trips to Hong Kong to inoculate their infants.

The mayor of Changchun, the city that is home to the biotechnology company in the middle of the vaccine scandal, resigned, Chinese state media reported.

The resignation of Mayor Liu Changlong came as a government investigation examines the China Food and Drug Administration and other agencies blamed for the crisis.

The Changchun-based company, Changsheng Biotechnology, has been accused of producing nearly half a million ineffective vaccines for children.

The mayor’s resignation was reported by the China state-owned People’s Daily, which said it was based on a decision by the national government and had been accepted by the standing committee of the Changchun’s People’s Congress.

More than 40 officials, including several from China’s food and drug regulators, have been punished or dismissed over the crisis, which has shaken confidence in an industry struggling to hold its own against drug production in Western countries and India.

The scandal has exposed lax standards and corruption common in China’s drug manufacturing sectors, as some companies put profit above the health of consumers, and officials responsible for enforcement tend to look the other way.

Changsheng Biotechnology, which is in Jilin province in northeast China, is a major drug manufacturer, and one of the largest producers of rabies and chickenpox vaccines.

The scandal initially emerged in November last year when the national drug regulation authority found that vaccines produced by Changsheng Biotechnology and a second company, Wuhan Institute of Biological Products, designed to protect children against diphtheria, whooping cough (pertussis) and tetanus (DPT), were not potent enough.

Later, drug regulators checked drug production at Changsheng Biotechnology and discovered that the company had used expired materials and falsified inspection records and production dates for rabies vaccinations.

The government also announced stiff penalties against the company for its sales of ineffective DPT vaccines.

Police arrested 18 Changsheng Biotechnology officials, including chairwoman Gao Junfang, known as China’s “vaccine queen”, whose fortune was estimated by Forbes at US$1bil (RM4.14bil) in 2016.

A third company, Zhejiang Huahai Pharmaceutical, recently issued a worldwide recall for an ingredient used in a heart medicine, valsartan, because thousands of batches were found to contain a potentially carcinogenic chemical.

The vaccination scandal sparked public anger over authorities’ failure to control food and drug standards despite a series of similar issues, many involving the sale of expired vaccines.

Many people vented their anger on Chinese social media, often to see comments removed by official censors.

“If the vaccine scandal happened in Japan, the Minister of Public Health Service would commit suicide. If it happened in the United States, the responsible officials would resign and the company would go bankrupt directly. If it happened in Thailand, the responsible party would be sentenced to the death penalty. However, in China, people only condemn it on social media and then the comments are promptly deleted,” read a comment on Chinese social media in late August 2018.

“If you can’t promise the safety of vaccines, how dare you encourage people to have more kids?” read another comment, referring to recent efforts by authorities to encourage parents to have two children instead of one after the end of a family policy that ran from 1979 to 2016.

The scandals have not only damaged the trust consumers have in Chinese vaccines, but also tainted the country’s global reputation as a drug manufacturer.

A toxic food and medicine scandal occurred 10 years ago when formula tainted with melamine killed six babies and sickened at least 53,000 infants. Chinese parents still clamour to buy infant formula overseas, particularly from Australia.

In 2016, China authorities admitted that two million expired vaccines, stored incorrectly in a hot room, had been sold around the country.

Two hundred people were arrested and nearly 400 government officials were punished as authorities vowed to clean up the industry.

In a vaccine scandal in 2015, two babies in Henan province died after they and hundreds of other babies received expired vaccines.

In 2010, a Beijing newspaper reported that four children died and 78 were sickened because of bad vaccines given to them in 2007 and 2008.

The problem of faked documentation has affected China’s reputation in other fields.

More than 400 Chinese scientists were exposed last year for faking peer reviews and data in scientific papers. – Los Angeles Times/Tribune News Service

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