Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Most Selfish Profit

It's all over the news--in response to bans on toys and jewelry containing lead, Chinese manufacturers have turned to the more toxic heavy metal, cadmium. This is problematic for many obvious reasons, but it still blows my mind that anyone could be so greedy and selfish as to jeopardize the safety of millions of children around the world.

True, many companies often mislead their consumers about the quality and contents of their products, and claiming that something is "organically grown" when it is generally not (see: baby formula, et al.), extolling the "miraculous" healing properties of plants that have yet to be scientifically tested or have already been disputed (see: Noni juice), and disguising certain ingredients under less commonly known names (see: sugar) all deserve punishment or at least some form of regulation. Still, the key difference is that some research on the part of consumers can make them more aware of what they are purchasing, and often these misleading activities cover up for less healthy alternatives, not blatantly toxic ones. What's more, these actions, particularly those of the first two types, rely more on hype and trendiness rather than on simply hoping no one (such as the Associated Press) notices the dangerous truth.

My cousin is two and a half years old, and although I haven't seen her in over a year and she doesn't know who I am, I can't imagine ever doing or creating anything that carried even the smallest chance of hurting her. And, seeing how small, cute, and innocent she is, I can't imagine ever doing or creating anything that carried even the smallest chance of hurting any two-year-old--or a young child of any age for that matter. The owners and managers of these manufacturing plants have children (or a child, I suppose), and if not a child, then a niece or nephew, neighbors, or family friends. They continue to produce small toys and jewelry knowing that these children close to them could be one of their consumers.

Handling cadmium is dangerous enough for the adults who work in these factories. The majority of laborers probably don't know enough about the danger of cadmium to realize that their health problems--particularly cancer, kidney damage, and osteoporosis--could be due to their exposure to the metal in addition to the regular hazards of polluted air, long hours, and crowded working conditions. If there is anybody who knows enough about the metal to protest, then more likely than not he or she is simply replaced by another.

Yet in children, the effect of cadmium is even more critical. Cadmium can result in developmental and mental retardation, and thereby saddle children with irreversible and incurable conditions starting in a period of their lives when they barely know what a hospital is. By knowingly using cadmium in jewelry, the manufacturers are robbing these children of their future, China of its future, and the world of its future. How any factory owner or supervisor can look at a child and still continue to permit the processing of cadmium into jewelry is something I cannot understand. For the transient benefit of an extra margin of profit, these Chinese manufacturers have made safety--and their own integrity--their last priority.

Does life mean nothing to them? Do love, compassion, and honesty remain abstract concepts to which they attach no importance? Does civic responsibility carry no meaning? Evidently the answer to these questions is yes--and I question a society that fails to instill any basic values in its citizens. The transition to cadmium demonstrates that the Chinese factories chose not to understand the basic concern underlying the ban on lead, apparently believing that complying with regulations--instead of ensuring consumer safety--was sufficient.

Yes, every government has a responsibility to check the quality of its goods, domestic- and foreign-made. The U.S. government (and probably several others) displayed a nonsensical lapse in judgment when it passed legislation banning cadmium only in painted toys, and moreover failed to detect that dangerous goods were entering the country. Yet regardless of regulation, every person has a responsibility to society and humanity. A country whose citizens regard themselves as above this responsibility is one that does not deserve to participate in the global community.

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