Parents in China Worry About Toxic Formaldehyde as Schools Begin New Term

September 5, 2018 Updated: September 8, 2018

Parents of school-age children in China are growing concerned about reports that the carcinogen formaldehyde has been found in many nurseries and primary schools.

On Sept. 1, thousands of parents gathered in Leiyang, Hunan Province, to protest a government plan to move elementary-school students into renovated private-school classrooms that had unsafe levels of formaldehyde. On the same day, similar concerns resulted in fifth- and sixth-grade students at a Xi’an primary school not attending class on schedule.

In Shenzhen, parents of students at the Nanyou Elementary School reported odd smells in the classrooms. Some students said they felt nauseous.

Formaldehyde is a chemical that’s used to make building materials such as particleboard, plywood, and fiberboard, as well as many household products, including cleaners, medicines, soaps, and cosmetics. Products that contain formaldehyde release the chemical as a gas or vapor, so people can breathe it in or absorb it through the skin when in liquid form. The toxin can cause cancer and has been linked to an increased risk of asthma and allergies in kids.

A parent surnamed Shao in the city of Hengyang in Hunan Province told The Epoch Times that “this kind of thing is common.” About two years earlier, formaldehyde was detected in the first- and second-grade classrooms of a school, as “the renovations had been finished just one day before the beginning of the school term,” Shao said.  

Shao said that she visited the local education bureau and government departments, but was ignored.

“Later, I printed more than 100 flyers to inform the parents about the risks,” she said. “I also posted the information on the internet, only then they finally started to do something.”

According to Shao, because the primary school is one of the top schools in the area and a difficult place to enroll one’s children, many parents kept quiet despite feeling dizzy, after staying in the classrooms for about an hour.

“The school and government simply don’t care about children’s safety,” Shao said. “They basically go for profit and think about how to maximize their own interests. Society has no moral bottom line. The Chinese Communist Party’s rule is the greatest torment; it is impossible for people to lead happy and healthy lives.”

According to mainland Chinese reports, excessive levels of formaldehyde are the primary cause of leukemia in children. A survey found that 90 percent of child leukemia patients had been living in newly renovated homes.

Nationwide Concern

School buildings are typically renovated during summer vacation. To maximize profits, however, construction companies often use unsafe or low-quality materials. Unsafe levels of formaldehyde are commonly found in renovated classrooms.

This summer, reports of dangerous levels of formaldehyde sprung up around the country, including in the cities of Nanjing, Guangzhou, and Chengdu.

In July, parents of students attending the Xiaobei Road Primary School in Guangzhou, in southern China, repeatedly petitioned their school management to express their objection to holding classes in a newly prepared set of classrooms. Many students had reported feeling unwell, and reported symptoms such as nosebleeds and dizziness.

Since May, more than a dozen children going to the Golden Sun International New City Kindergarten in Chengdu, in southwestern China, reported fevers, coughing, vomiting, and nosebleeds. Three auditing agencies found that the formaldehyde level in the classrooms twice exceeded safe levels.

Such incidents have been reported regularly across China in multiple provinces since at least 2013. One report from a kindergarten in Guangzhou dates back to 2002.

The way the incidents were handled can be contrasted with the practice of school administrators in Hong Kong, which is a part of China but enjoys some measure of self-rule.

In 2012, before the students moved into new dormitories at the University of Hong Kong, it was found that six of 16 rules of health and safety assessment were below “good” levels. The university decided at its own cost to transfer almost 100 students to a hotel, and arrange special transportation to and from classes.