GUANGZHOU, China -- Amputation isn't the only hazard afflicting Chinese workers who make furniture and home accessories for U.S. consumers.
Direct and indirect exposure to unhealthy levels of benzene and other chemicals in paint and varnish also are claiming victims.
He Yuyun, 36, for years painted furniture at the Ya Li Shan Zhuo factory in China, which shipping documents show was destined for Restoration Hardware, Ethan Allen Furniture, Haverty Furniture and other U.S. companies.
Now, she suffers from "chronic occupational benzene poisoning," according to a Sept. 29, 2006 medical record. Carcinogens have damaged her bone marrow, leaving her with too few white blood cells. She and at least two co-workers have been diagnosed with myelodysplastic anemia, a disease that progresses to fatal leukemia.
Yuyun inhaled the toxins from two sources: her own factory work as she painted and varnished furniture with a brush, and the work of others who spray-painted furniture without access to spray booths like those U.S. workers use to control fumes.
She represents a new type of health problem in Chinese factories. Previously, workers performing the same tasks were grouped together. Now, in the name of "just in time" delivery, which seeks to ensure few finished goods are warehoused, some factories have been grouping workers performing different tasks near each other. The practice speeds production time, but can expose workers to multiple hazards.
In her case, the chemical hazards -- benzene, toluene and xylene -- were the same, but she inhaled them from different sources. In other cases, workers applying a variety of solvents and organic chemicals have sat next to sewing machine operators who work without proper ventilation or masks, according to Garrett Brown, a California industrial hygienist who evaluated dozens of factories in China. Similarly, sewing machine operators sitting next to punch-press operators sometimes lack hearing protection from noise that can cause hearing loss, Brown said.
Such systems, "can actually increase hazards by mixing previously separated exposures, with additive and cumulative effects," he wrote in a 2007 article in Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health.
Benzene, toluene and xylene are used as solvents in paint and varnish, and also are used in the manufacture of shoes, suitcases, some toys and other goods. Benzene has been classified as a carcinogen, leading to leukemia, and tuolene is considered a possible carcinogen. China in 2002 adopted regulations that decreased the permissible level of benzene in the air from 10 parts per million to 1.8 parts per million. The level allowed in the U.S. is 0.5 part of benzene per million parts of air in the workplace during an eight-hour work day, 40-hour work week.
China's regulations, however, are rarely enforced, factory workers and occupational health professionals say. In 59 percent of 27 industries in China surveyed by scientists after the 2002 regulations went into effect, the median benzene exposure level was above the new standard of 1.8 parts per million, according to a 2005 study published in the Journal of Chemico-biological Interactions. Last year, an article in Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology found that "the majority of facilities in the shoemaking industry . . . were not in compliance with the occupational exposure limits in effect at the time."
The factory where Yuyun, a migrant worker from rural Shaanxi Province, worked is known in English as Alexandre International Corp. Inc.
Fran Hammond, a Restoration Hardware spokeswoman, said she was surprised to hear about the workers who had developed myelodysplastic anemia working in the factory. She said she has visited the factory many times and saw that it had "extractor fans" and an adequate ventilation system. In addition, she said, Restoration Hardware uses water-based paints and varnish on its furniture, so "when you walk in, there's no smell." Other American furniture companies use different types of paint in the same factory, she noted.
"Water-based" paint still has carcinogenic solvents, according to Brown, the industrial hygienist. "Everyone pretends that if there is less solvent in the paint than previously, then it is "no solvent" paint," Brown said. "[That's] simply not true."
Indeed, a factory inspection report by the Shenzhen Songgang Prevention and Health Care Institute on Dec. 1, 2005, found that although workers in that factory were using a type of acetone solution made from bananas, the solution was 0.1 percent benzene, 29 percent toluene and 32 percent xylene.
In addition, Yuyun and the others worked 10 hours seven days a week, according to her medical report, so they inhaled greater levels of toxins than scientists planned when they established "permissible levels" of toxins.
Hammond said when issues of noncompliance with health and safety standards arise in factories Restoration Hardware buys from "our agents will work with the vendors and factories to help remediate the problems. It's not an overnight thing. It's a step-by-step process."
Neither Ethan Allen nor Haverty granted requests for interviews. Ethan Allen said in an e-mail only that it did not use benzene in its paints or varnishes. Haverty Furniture's e-mail said the company was surprised to hear about the poisoning because a team of quality-control personnel oversee all furniture made in the factory.
Yuyun's illness manifested itself in May 2006. She fainted and often was dizzy. She had severe back pain. She always seemed sick with colds and sore throats.
She was admitted to the hospital and she was there for a year.
"I had hoped to help my family build a house," Yuyun said. "Now all I want is to have some energy, to get through each day."
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