Tian Lihua had just clocked in for work at a textile mill outside Jilin when she became nauseated, then dizzy. Moments later she passed out. In the next few days 1,200 of her co-workers developed medical issues ranging from seizures to shortness of breath and transient paralysis.
“When I came to, I could hear the doctors talking,” she told the New York Times last month. “They said I had a reaction to unknown substances.”
Tian and her colleagues believe those “unknown substances” had wafted downwind from the Jilin Connell Chemical Plant which makes aniline, a notoriously toxic chemical used to produce rubber, dyes, polyurethane and herbicides.
Local hospitals began seeing befallen workers immediately after the plant opened this spring. On a bad day, so many workers showed up that the hospital was forced to put 2 in each bed.
The State Administration of Work Safety initially stated on its Web site that the cause was a “chemical leak,” but hours later the statement was pulled down.
Now, local health officials as well as those dispatched from Beijing contend the entire event is due to mass hysteria….psychological reactions on a massive scale to a presumed chemical exposure.
The officials have admonished the workers to “get a hold of their emotions” and get back to work, say afflicted individuals and their loved ones.
“How could a psychological illness cause so much pain and misery?” asked 29 year-old Zhang Fusheng, who appeared to a Times reporter to be short of breath despite being hooked up to an oxygen mask. “My only wish is to get better so I can go back to work and take care of my family.”
The Ministry of Health in Beijing refused to release details of its investigation, but local officials insist they found no evidence of a toxic exposure.
The plant is partially owned by local government officials. Its president is Song Zhiping, who is also a representative to China’s legislative body, the National People’s Congress.