Melamine Tainted Milk in China: A Personal Issue For Me

29 September 2008

A bit more than two years ago, we met with some expat friends at our favorite restaurant for Yum Cha (Dim Sum) on a Saturday morning.  Two members of our party at the table were the heads of human rights enforcement for large, multinational corporations.  On a daily basis, these expats were in the trenches of enforcing Western human rights standards in an environment where those values were not shared.  Needless to say, we had lively and interesting discussion.*

But then, looking outside at the grey coat of smog that obscured an otherwise perfect view of the Pearl River, our conversation turned away from protective guards on heavy machinery, and on to another issue involving health, namely pollution. 

One of the expats reported, with a wry smile on her face, "Our company’s doctor informs me that [in his estimation] as long as I’m here less than five years, the health effects are reversible."  We all joked about it.  Reversible.  Yeah.  We knew it was hurting us.  I had developed asthma, as had my youngest child Munchkin.  But we expected it to be reversible when we returned to our home country.

We laughed, but we all put a lot of store in that word:  reversible.  Though we knew we were among the fortunate, it was a fact: we were lucky. We could and did expect to leave the fishbowl of cloudy water at some time. We were not facing irreversible threats to our physical integrity in an environment that was inescapable.  We had options.  Our primary, unspoken, cares were for the millions of Chinese citizens who will swim in that fishbowl all their lives, for whom five years is just one part of a long lifetime, in a country that has phenomenally high rates of cancer, asthma, and emphysema. 

Sure enough, I am now in the relatively unpolluted environment of my home country.  Though Munchkin and I still have asthma, my hope is that it will diminish over time.  My unspoken assumption has been, "I’m out of China now, the effects will be reversing themselves now too." 

But — shake up my fantasy a little — the Chinese melamine tainted milk story affects me more personally than I’d like to admit.  For, while we lived in China, my family and I all drank Chinese milk. 

Many of my friends only drank milk imported from Hong Kong or even from New Zealand.  Not us.  We went "native" to a higher degree than many expats.  I always purchased Chinese milk.  And we did it for four years.  My two, growing daughters drank Chinese milk every day. 

Though I knew on an intellectual level that food products could have contaminants, the food in China generally "seemed fine" to me.  Even though I heard that mothers who eat Chinese food test positive for DDT in their breast milk (theoretically impossible because there officially is no DDT in China), the vegetables and fruit in the Chinese markets is lovely.  Generally speaking, the produce in Chinese markets appears far superior to the somewhat stale looking food I now see in American grocery stores.  And gee, as long as we’re safe about germs — triple washing lettuce in bottled water for example — how bad can a little bit of pesticide residue be?  It didn’t kill the cow, after all?

And the milk didn’t seem tainted.  It tasted good and seemed fresh. I thought my worst risk was exposure to hormones or antibiotics that were fed to the cows producing the milk. I also admit, I succumbed to the irrational self-reassurance that, "everybody else in China seems to be drinking it, and so we’re all in the same boat and it doesn’t seem to be making them sick."

There was one time that I passed up a temptation, and I’m glad I did.  I complained about the price of our milk.  We purchased six eight ounce bottles of milk every day, which was delivered to our door by a "milkman".  The price had gone up to 8.5 RMB per 8 ounces (this translates to about $17 per gallon).  The milkman offered to sell me a much cheaper brand.  It was only 2.5 or 3 RMB per 8 oz.  We tried it, and it just didn’t taste right.  It seemed to taste watered down.  I didn’t trust it and so I switched back to the expensive brand.  (We just cut our consumption down to four eight ounce jars per day, which was enough for each child to have a bowl of cereal for breakfast, some milk in our coffee, and a bit left over for various other uses.)  

So, I hear the news about the melamine tainted milk, and I’ll tell you, there’s something a bit different about this one for me. 

At the time of my conversation over breakfast, I thought that any health effects from living in China were reversible and (hopefully) not so serious. 

Like, asthma.  Asthma comes on insidiously.  At first it’s just a cough, or it seems like one’s bronchitis hangs on a bit longer than it ought.  It feels like a chronic, low grade annoyance, and hey, it’s going to go away when I return to my home country, right?  Nothing permanent.  It’s also a risk that is plain as "day".  If I swim in air pollution every day, I shouldn’t be surprised to develop it.   Maybe this was pure rationalization on my part.  After all, when one is in a situation one has no control over, one tends to adjust mentally. 

But I never planned to or consented to drink poison in my baby’s milk!   I never envisioned having to ask myself, "GEE, DO I NEED TO TAKE MY DAUGHTERS TO GET TESTED FOR KIDNEY STONES?" 


*  (Their stories supplied me with a treasure trove of what otherwise could be interesting case studies, except that I cannot repeat them because to do so might violate their privacy.)  


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