More Than Decade After China’s Tainted Milk Scandal, Children Still Have Severe Health Problems

By Frank Fang
Frank Fang
Frank Fang
Frank Fang is a Taiwan-based journalist. He covers U.S., China, and Taiwan news. He holds a master's degree in materials science from Tsinghua University in Taiwan.
September 14, 2020Updated: September 15, 2020

To some parents in mainland China, Sept. 11 is a traumatizing date, as it marks the anniversary of China’s most infamous food safety scandal.

In 2008, a major manufacturer was found to have produced milk and infant formula powder tainted with a toxic chemical, and to this day, children who consumed the product as infants continue to exhibit health problems.

“My daughter is 13 years old now, and she is not in good condition,” said Wang Hong (a pseudonym) in a recent interview with the Chinese-language Epoch Times. She said that her daughter developed kidney stones after drinking the contaminated milk.

When she was about 6 years old, the stones disappeared, but other health implications surfaced and she was later diagnosed with growth disorders, Wang said. Her daughter was shorter and skinnier than other children her age, and sufferers from swollen lymph nodes, as well as abnormal liver and kidney function.

“Later, she came down with epilepsy … and now she is mentally retarded. Doctors said that she has the intelligence of a first or second grader. She should be in junior high school now. But she can only be homeschooled,” Wang said.

“I taught her to make fried tomato eggs and how to write eggs [in Chinese], but she has a hard time memorizing them. Her dad asked her what’s the sum of 50 and 50, and she said 60.”

On Sept. 11, 2008, Chinese milk powder maker Sanlu Group announced a recall of some of its products because they were contaminated with the poisonous chemical compound melamine. On the same day, there were reports of 59 cases of babies developing kidney stones and one death in the north-central Gansu Province after consuming Sanlu’s milk powder.

Melamine is a synthetic compound with many industrial applications. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, it’s used in the manufacture of some cooking utensils, paper, industrial coatings, and other things. It isn’t approved to be a direct additive to human food or animal feed.

Sanlu added melamine to inflate the protein content of its milk powder, as the synthetic compound is rich in nitrogen, to pass quality-control testing.

While it’s difficult to assess the true number of children affected given China’s pattern of covering up scandals, former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said in a 2010 state media interview that at least 30 million children were affected by the tainted milk powder.

Chinese state-run media reported that the Chinese regime would set aside 2 billion yuan ($292 million) to compensate victims. However, many parents have complained about not being compensated, and were silenced when they tried to petition for justice for their children.

Wang says her family is in financial trouble and that Chinese authorities aren’t helping enough.

“My daughter began taking anti-epileptic drugs when she was 5 years old, which costs us nearly 1,000 yuan ($146) every month,” she says.

As a person with a disability, Wang’s daughter gets about 200 yuan ($29) from social security and 60 yuan ($8.70) in government disability benefits every month, Wang says.

“Children are the hope of any family. After she became sick and then diagnosed with mental retardation, it has been a huge psychological blow to me and my husband,” she says.

Another parent, Jin Ning (also a pseudonym), says her daughter in junior high school is outgoing and doing well academically. However, she often complains of pain in her kidneys, and she also has some problems with her bladder.

Jin said that while there are memorials every year in the United States for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Chinese people are slowly forgetting about what happened in China on Sept. 11 more than a decade ago.

Jin added that victims sometimes wore T-shirts bearing the words, “Remembering China 911,” and local authorities would question why they were wearing the shirt.

“Don’t forget about China 911,” Jin urged.

Xiang Yu (a pseudonym) said he was lucky because his child, despite having consumed the tainted powder, turned out to be healthy.

“The compensation offered by the government was unfair. My child had mild symptoms and was not qualified for any compensation. I filed a lawsuit in court, and the court rejected my case,” Xiang said.

Xiang said he learned from social media chat groups created by victims’ family members that local insurance companies turned a blind eye when some parents tried to seek compensation.

Because authorities shut down many of the chat groups and victims slowly lost contact with each other, Xiang said it feels like China is forgetting about the scandal.

Zhao Lianhai, founder of the advocacy group “Home for the Kidney Stone Babies,” has a son who became sick after drinking tainted milk. In 2010, Zhao was sentenced to 2.5 years in prison for “disturbing social order” after he helped organize a gathering in Beijing of victims’ parents and he accepted media interviews.