Johnson Controls Cleared of Lead Poisoning Allegations – Part One

by Stuart Burns on
Environment, Public Policy

Reports in the FT that authorities in China had directly linked lead pollution that sickened local children to emissions from a battery plant of US company Johnson Controls were subsequently proved unfounded; a Bloomberg article this week confirmed it.

The authorities had indicated the facility would not be allowed to process lead in the future, after the Shanghai Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau said the Johnson Controls plant in an area of the city called Kangqiao had a role in lead pollution that sickened 49 children.

Johnson Controls had rejected the claims and an independent study by the China Electric Equipment Industry Association concluded the contamination came from a garbage recycling plant nearby. Ten children were hospitalized with lead levels three times the Chinese national limits and zinc levels 15 times the national limits.

At the time, Johnson Controls said “the lead emission average at our Shanghai facility is about [one-seventh] of Chinese national standard, whilst our lead discharge through waste water treatment facility average is about [one-tenth] of Chinese national standard. Our plant employees are regularly tested to ensure their blood lead levels are sufficiently low, and in fact our blood lead over 200 ug/L rate is world class at 0.7%,” a position that was subsequently supported by the independent report.

Johnson Controls’ involvement in the original accusations brought the case to a wider audience than may otherwise have been the case. China suffers environmental scares, plant closures and environmental pollution-related public demonstrations on an almost weekly basis somewhere in the country — most go unreported to the outside world.

In this case, Johnson Controls feels the local officials’ reaction suggests that the accusations (made last September after a routine back-to-school test for children) are part of a wider policy to deter the firm from restarting production. According to a Wall Street Journal article, the plant operates under a quota system which only allows them to process so much lead a year; the quota was used up in the fall and so the plant was due to be closed in September until the start of the this year anyway.

To be continued in Part Two.

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