New Health Scandal: Poison Paint Kills Renter

SCMP: Poisoned paint fears addressed after renter dies in eastern China
The 37-year-old man, surnamed Wang, died in July of leukaemia after living in a flat rented from the platform Ziroom in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, for two months.

His widow launched a legal action claiming his illness was caused by high levels of formaldehyde found in the paint. The case is due to be heard on September 27.

Ziroom responded to the incident on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like service, on Saturday, saying the company would cooperate with law enforcement and communicate with the family accordingly.
The company is unlisting all properties on its site and will test all of their air quality.
News of the case, reported in Thepaper.cn, heightened public concerns on the back of other reports of excessive levels of formaldehyde in paint and other “poisonous” substances used in building and decorating materials in homes for rent across China.
The evidence for poison paint looks weak in my non-expert opinion:
The company found that while benzene, methylbenzene and total volatile organic compound levels met national standards, there was an excessive concentration of formaldehyde in the flat, at 0.132 milligrams per cubic metre, compared to the recommended limit of 0.1 milligrams per cubic metres.

...Nanjing-based doctor Qin Ruomeng said there was no definite connection between high levels of formaldehyde and AML, although some epidemiological studies showed that long-term contact with formaldehyde was associated with respiratory tumours. AML has been linked to high levels of benzene.

The World Health Organization guideline for indoor air formaldehyde concentration is 0.08 ppm (0.1mg/m3). The California Air Resources Board recommends an “action level” of 0.1 ppm and a “target level” of 0.05 ppm or lower for homes.

Formaldehyde is normally present at low levels, usually less than 0.03 ppm in both outdoor and indoor air. The out door air in rural area ha lower concentrations while urban areas have higher concentrations. Residences or offices that contain products that release formaldehyde to the air can have formaldehyde levels of greater than 0.03 ppm
Department of Labor: 1910.1048 App C - Medical surveillance - Formaldehyde
The concentration of formaldehyde that is immediately dangerous to life and health is 100 ppm. Concentrations above 50 ppm can cause severe pulmonary reactions within minutes. These include pulmonary edema, pneumonia, and bronchial irritation which can result in death. Concentrations above 5 ppm readily cause lower airway irritation characterized by cough, chest tightness and wheezing. There is some controversy regarding whether formaldehyde gas is a pulmonary sensitizer which can cause occupational asthma in a previously normal individual. Formaldehyde can produce symptoms of bronchial asthma in humans. The mechanism may be either sensitization of the individual by exposure to formaldehyde or direct irritation by formaldehyde in persons with pre-existing asthma. Upper airway irritation is the most common respiratory effect reported by workers and can occur over a wide range of concentrations, most frequently above 1 ppm. However, airway irritation has occurred in some workers with exposures to formaldehyde as low as 0.1 ppm. Symptoms of upper airway irritation include dry or sore throat, itching and burning sensations of the nose, and nasal congestion. Tolerance to this level of exposure may develop within 1-2 hours. This tolerance can permit workers remaining in an environment of gradually increasing formaldehyde concentrations to be unaware of their increasingly hazardous exposure.

...B. Chronic Effects of Exposure

Long term exposure to formaldehyde has been shown to be associated with an increased risk of cancer of the nose and accessory sinuses, nasopharyngeal and oropharyngeal cancer, and lung cancer in humans. Animal experiments provide conclusive evidence of a causal relationship between nasal cancer in rats and formaldehyde exposure. Concordant evidence of carcinogenicity includes DNA binding, genotoxicity in short-term tests, and cytotoxic changes in the cells of the target organ suggesting both preneoplastic changes and a dose-rate effect. Formaldehyde is a complete carcinogen and appears to exert an effect on at least two stages of the carcinogenic process.
It sounds like the level of formaldehyde in the apartment wasn't high enough to cause cancer after two months of exposure. Still, this is another story on the growing theme of health risks:
There have been many media reports of discomfort caused by high chemical levels in the past, many of them with Ziroom flats.

On August 5, the Beijing Times reported that a Ziroom renter in the capital felt nauseous because of excessive formaldehyde levels. On August 20, Sina.com reported a Beijing renter claimed excessive chemical levels caused red goosebumps to break out all over his body.
Chinese coverage at iFeng: 九问“自如”,冤枉吗?. The article lists many questions renters should be asking about the furnishings in their apartment.

This all comes as the government pushes the rental market and affordable housing, and capital moves into the rental industry amid the crackdown on new homes sales. Rent is already a hot button issue because rents are soaring in cities such as Beijing and Shenzhen.

Finally, why are these stories become top news now? In July, a vaccine scandal knocked the trade war off the front page for about a week. I posted this chart showing the timing of major health scandals in China. The formaldehyde floor issue came up in early 2012.
In late 2011 and into early 2012, the Chinese yuan was depreciating versus the U.S. dollar and stocks were declining. China has no shortage of health scandals, but negative news that comes out amid declining social mood gets far more attention.

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