Harmful Chemicals Found in Daughter’s School Supplies, Father Dedicates 4 Years to Safety Tests

Harmful Chemicals Found in Daughter’s School Supplies, Father Dedicates 4 Years to Safety Tests
Daniel Holl

A father in China has spent four years of his time and over $4.5 million dollars of his own money to test for toxins in products used by local school children, Red Star News reported.

Wei Wenfeng, the father, established a testing center in China to help parents check for carcinogens and other harmful chemicals in the products that their children use at school.

Wei started his quest simply enough. He originally worked in the Physics Department of Zhejiang University where he did material testing.

In 2015, his daughter brought home some workbooks from elementary school. He was planning to wrap them in old paper but the daughter wanted to use a transparent plastic that her classmates were using.

When Wei bought the plastic book covers, he found that the stench from the glue was especially strong. He said that each pack contained over 10 covers. There was no information printed on the packaging about the company that had produced them, much less was there a product safety warning.

“I'd been doing testing for over 10 years and I felt there was a problem,” Wei told Red Star News. He then went to the same shop next to his daughter’s school and bought several more bags of the book covers.

Next, he went to a materials testing center to analyze the covers. In total, tests cost almost $1,500.

What was found were large amounts of phthalates—substances used to add flexibility to plastics. They may also cause harm to the human reproductive system.

Wei also said he found a type of carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH). These chemicals are often found in coal and tar.

“My daughter touches this book cover everyday,” Wei said. “Without noticing, those poisons might get into her body.”

Wei said he knew he had to buy safer products “but I don’t know how many of these invisible chemical dangers are harming kids like my daughter.

“I wanted to let everyone know about this,” he said.

Harmful Chemicals

A young Chinese girl looks at a "Barbie and Tanner" toy made by US toy giant Mattel at a department store in Shanghai, China on 15 Aug. 2007. (Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)
A young Chinese girl looks at a "Barbie and Tanner" toy made by US toy giant Mattel at a department store in Shanghai, China on 15 Aug. 2007. (Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)
China has a poor track record for manufacturing and ensuring safe levels of potentially dangerous chemicals. Many products exported from China, such as those in the United States, have been found to have dangerous levels of certain chemicals within them.

In 2018, rubber toys from China were found to have excessive amounts of lead in them. Inexpensive metal jewelry was found to also contain high levels of lead.

A study from 2011 tested toys in five major Chinese cities. Over 30 percent of the toys tested contained either lead, arsenic, cadmium, mercury, antimony, or chromium, all which are dangerous to a child’s health.

Two other plastic products found to have dangerous levels of chemicals were “skip-balls,” which swing around a child’s foot while they skip, and a set of plastic dolls. Both had excessive levels of phthalates, just like the book covers that Wei tested.

Children Come First

After making his findings, Wei went on the radio to let others know.

He then contacted some of the manufacturers and suggested they use polypropylene instead—a plastic that is considered to be “food safe.”

In 2015, he quit his job and spent $1.5 million to establish a testing center that parents could also use. However, money quickly ran out.

“So I decided to do crowd funding,” Wei said. As a result, 112 other parents gave him $3 million more to continue his work. “I was so moved, I felt like I was in a fairy tale.”

Wei said that one of the parents owned a laboratory and had a 3-year-old daughter. “He knew what I was doing and was very supportive,” Wei said.

Over the years, Wei has helped parents with testing of various household products. In 2016, he started to assist people in testing rooms for formaldehyde. According to the U.S. National Toxicology Program, formaldehyde is “known to be a human carcinogen.”

The testing went from June 2016 until Jan. 1 this year. According to Wei, out of 60,942 rooms that his equipment has tested for formaldehyde, 26,813 had levels dangerous to humans.

Threats for His Actions

But not everyone has been supportive of Wei’s efforts. Wei has also been criticized for his actions. “I’ve suffered many threats,” Wei said. Some product owners have called Wei to curse him, sent lawyers to sue him, and even sent hackers to harass him.

“My hair’s started to get white really quickly,” Wei said. “In 2015, I shot a video and my hair was all black. Now, both sides are whitening. It’s okay though because if I can see my daughter growing up healthily every day, it’s all worth it.”

Daniel Holl is a Sacramento, California-based reporter, specializing in China-related topics. He moved to China alone and stayed there for almost seven years, learning the language and culture. He is fluent in Mandarin Chinese.
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