Man Xa village in the northern province of Bac Ninh has more than 300 large and small family-run plants that annually recycle 8,000 to 10,000 tons of scrap aluminum into various cookware products.
But a Thanh Nien investigation discovered that the activity is killing people and the environment.
A resident in nearby Binh An village said when all the plants in Man Xa melt aluminum at the same time, the village is like “a big construction site,” and the black, smelly fumes spread hundreds of meters when it was windy.
“Sometimes despite closing doors and windows, we still have difficulty breathing,” the resident said.
A strong burnt smell that emanated from many chimneys hung over the village, Thanh Nien reporters found.
Fields in the area were full of clinkers dumped by the plants, trees and shrubs were dead, and ponds were black and full of dead fish.
Dr Nguyen Van Duy, chief of the Cao Mon commune health clinic, which serves Man Xa, said many villagers have inflammation of the respiratory and digestive tracts, and that most of the patients are children and old people.
The diseases are caused by pollution of the air and water because of the discharge of untreated wastes, he said.
“Fifty percent of Man Xa residents have died of cancer,” Duy said.
Nguyen Huu Hau, vice chairman of the Cao Mon People’s Committee, said most of the plants lack licenses and contaminate the environment, but it would be “impossible” to close them down because they fetch their owners VND500,000-600,000 (US$23.5-28.2) in profits per day and so they would do everything possible to remain in business.
N. one of the village's big producers, runs a plant measuring around 100 square meters and with one clay furnace.
Every day she buys and recycles two to three tons of aluminum waste for VND23,000-25,000 per kilogram in case of beer cans and VND27,000-29,000 in case of door frames.
The scraps are burned in the furnace with coal, and two workers with no protective masks but only towels wrapped around their faces pour the liquid aluminum into molds to make things like pots and saucepans.
Contaminants like dirt, moisture, plastic, glass, and other metals are not removed from the scrap during the production, and so the products have black and yellow hues.
Bon, whose plant produces nearly 100 pots and saucepans a day, said the color can be removed by soaking in a tank of water mixed with chemicals. After the cleaning process that takes around 10 minutes, the products are washed with water.
In this manner more than 10 pots can be made to look bright and shiny in less than half an hour.
Bon refused to reveal what chemical substances were used, but claimed that they caused “no harm at all.”
At a local facility specializing in cleaning recycled products, Thanh Nien found a tank and dozens of empty containers labeled chromium trioxide (CrO3) – a highly toxic, corrosive, and carcinogenic agent, and nitric acid. Both are often used as strong oxidizing agents.
The facility’s workers said the substances are routinely used by the plants to polish their recycled products.
A utensil made in Man Xa costs just VND20,000-30,000 while those made by popular producers cost four to five times that.
Dr La The Vinh, deputy chief of the School of Chemical Engineering at the Hanoi University of Technology, said cookware produced from recycled aluminum with low purity is likely to be contaminated by heavy metals like lead, arsenic, and cadmium.
During the process of cooking or when containing salty and sour foods, they are easily eroded or undergo chemical reactions that release aluminum ions. When the ions mix with foods it is “very dangerous,” he said.
After a certain time, the amount of aluminum accumulated in the tissues will probably be large enough to poison the nervous system and blood, leading to amnesia and response disorders.
Dr Nguyen Thi Kim Thai of the Institute for Environmental Science and Technology at the Hanoi University of Civil Engineering warned that scrap transformers and capacitors that aluminum recyclers often buy contain a toxic compound called polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB).
Without special handling and disposal, PCB cannot be destroyed and accumulates in human tissue, mutating genes and causing cancers, she said.
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