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Anguished Chinese flood hospitals

Children are taken for tests as tainted milk crisis worsens. Hong Kong officials issue a recall of milk products.

September 19, 2008|Don Lee | Times Staff Writer

GUANGZHOU, CHINA — Sweat dripping down his face, Mo Chongjian paced the second floor of Guangzhou Children's Hospital, clutching a medical report and an ultrasound image of his 13-month-old son's kidneys. The scan was pocked with white dots.

"You see here. Both of his kidneys have stones," said the 38-year-old security guard, a short, stocky man with big eyes. "When I think back, I remember that my son couldn't sleep well at night. He always cried a lot, and now I understand that he must have lots of pain in his waist. When I look into his eyes, I feel so guilty. I couldn't protect him."

Anguished, despairing parents crowded the halls of hospitals with their children across China this week after many brands of baby formula were found to be tainted with the industrial chemical melamine.

For many, the news wasn't good.

The government said Thursday that a fourth baby, in the far west Xinjiang region, had died after ingesting powdered milk made by the Sanlu Group, the focus of what has become a national crisis. As of Wednesday, reports showed that more than 6,200 infants were ill, with 158 suffering from acute kidney failure, according to China's health minister. And those numbers were certain to rise as more children are taken to hospitals.

As the crisis rapidly spread, Hong Kong officials Thursday issued a recall of mainland Chinese-produced milk, yogurt and ice cream tainted with melamine. New tests found melamine in liquid milk from China's leading dairy producers, including Mengniu, Yili and Guangming.

The official New China News Agency has said 18 people have been arrested in the scandal.

Officials said the amount of melamine found in the liquid milk products was safe for people and that they were not aware of any illnesses related to them.

Still, the new test results are likely to make many already wary consumers shun Chinese-produced dairy goods. The scandal has prompted widespread anger toward the domestic dairy industry, in which some people are suspected of adding melamine to get a false reading of a higher protein level.

Many people also have lashed out at the government for failing to properly monitor dairy suppliers and waiving tougher inspection practices for some companies, such as Sanlu, purportedly because of the firms' good record.

Various reports indicate that Sanlu, a large state-run producer 43% owned by New Zealand-based Fonterra, knew about the melamine contamination at least a month before the public was alerted.

On Thursday, Ji Chuntang, the mayor of Shijiazhuang, the capital city of Hebei province, where Sanlu is based, was forced to resign, joining four other top city officials as well as Sanlu's chairwoman.

Officials have said baby formula made by 22 dairy producers, including the leading domestic brands, tested positive for melamine, the same chemical that was found in pet food ingredients from China that killed many dogs and cats in the U.S. last year.

In Guangzhou, hundreds of people Thursday jammed into the four-story Children's Hospital downtown. A tall red sign at the entrance instructed families where to go and said they would not have to pay for tests.

Wen Shiqiong, 22, had arrived at 8 a.m. just as the hospital's doors opened. Wen said she and her family had been on tenterhooks since they saw reports Monday about Sanlu formula. Wen came with her husband, their 2-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter, who was strapped on the back of Wen's mother.

Six hours after getting blood and urine tests and an ultrasound, the family learned the results. The boy was OK, but his sister's kidney was full of stones.

"She ate too much powder," said Wen, a thin, dark-skinned woman. She said she had stopped nursing the girl after six months, when she visited a Guangzhou supermarket. She remembered that Sanlu's brand was heavily promoted.

"They said it was nutritious, so we tried it," said Wen, cradling her sleeping boy in her arms. Tears ran down her daughter's face as Wen spoke. "Later we saw more and more ads on TV, and they said Sanlu was a national inspection-waived brand. We thought it should be fine."

They couldn't have been more wrong. Chinese inspectors said test batches showed Sanlu had the highest level of melamine contamination among products from 109 companies. Thursday, China's quality watchdog agency said it would abolish the inspection-waiver system.

"This is my only child," said Zhai Aifeng, 34, looking at her 1-year-old boy, waiting for their number to be called. She said he had been fed powdered milk made by Shengyuan and Nanshan, among the 22 that tested positive for melamine.

"What shall we do if something happened to our only child?" she said. "This is our government's responsibility to regulate this. Babies are our talent. If their health is ruined, what will happen to our country? Where is the future of our nation?"



Cao Jun of The Times' Shanghai Bureau contributed to this report.



The toll so far

Dead : 4

Acute kidney failure: 158

Sick: 6,200


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