The afternoon of March 19 started like every other afternoon in Jiajia Preschool in Yunan province, China. But panic stroke the school suddenly as multiple children showed severe food poison symptoms and two girls, one four-year-old and the other five-year-old, died soon after arriving at hospital.
Mr. Yang, the grandfather of the deceased four-year-old girl recalled the whole event. He arrived at the preschool minutes after the phone call from the teacher, and sent his unconscious granddaughter to a nearby clinic. The doctor there said the girl might have a stroke but Mr. Yang did not think so and drove to the hospital in town. On his way there, Mr. Yang ran into the ambulance which took the girl to the hospital. Then he returned to the school and there were six more children fainted with similar appearance: clenched fists and teeth, blackened face, hands and feet, and blood and/or white foam out of mouth or nose. He said with tears that it was very obvious a poison, just like what cats and dogs look like after eating rodenticide.
Parents arrived at the school very soon but there were not much they can do, because the ambulance was slow to arrive. One teacher has a car and drove some children to nearby clinic. The rest three teachers were all crying under panic. Thirty minutes passed after the first child fainted, but there was still no ambulance. Some parents cannot wait any longer without doing anything, so they were running to the hospital in town. One parent has a car and rushed his child to hospital.
Eventually a total of 32 children were sent to hospital, and seven were tested positive for food poison. Five survivors out of these seven were in critical conditions but all are now recovered from life-threatening conditions. There were three children doctors were greatly concerned of, including one who lost breathing ability at one time.
The poison source is concluded to be a cracker-like snack brought to the school by one child and shared by others, not related to the school food. It is still under investigation whether the snack was purchased at a store or given to the child by someone. Many questions floating on the poison: was it in the snack in the production or added by someone? Who would do such a thing and what is the purpose? Food poison in preschools in China made headlines once or twice a year but deaths of children are unusual.
In the evening on March 20, it is officially confirmed the poison is TETS, an organic compound used as a rodenticide. This odorless, tasteless white powder is neurotoxin, 100 times more toxic than potassium cyanide. No antidote is known and the treatment is mainly supportive. The toxin is retained in the tissue of poisoned poultry and animals, posing a risk of secondary or third poisoning. As one of the most hazardous pesticides, it has been banned worldwide since 1984.
Due to continuing demands for its effectiveness, its ease of production and its huge profit, it is still available in China despite being banned in early 1990s. The Chinese name is Dushuqiang, meaning “very strong rat poison”. In the past 13 years, there are many victims of this poison. In 2002, 300 people were poisoned and 42 died; in 2003, the numbers were 33 and 10; in 2009, 21 children affected and one died; in 2011, 22 students fell ill and in 2011 at least five children poisoned and two died.
Hu Yinlian, associate professor in Chinese Academy of Governance, analyzed how to keep TETS out of circulation in China. Its effectiveness leads some people to consider its hazardous risk an acceptable trade-off. As long as this demand exists, a total ban is hard to implement. The best way is to find comparable replacement chemical that does not have such high toxicity. The other approach is to tighten the monitoring and control for TETS. The first question is to clarify whether it should be monitored as drug or as rodenticide, or even other categories. A clear monitor and control scheme is only possible with this clarification because in China drugs and pesticides are managed under two different agencies. Local monitoring officials may not implement the ban of TETS due to the strong demands in communities, and this willingly overlook weakens the execution of existing regulations.
Under investigation for the food poison, Jiajia Preschool, founded in February last year with a total of 79 students, was discovered to not have the certification to run a school. The owners and all four teachers are under custody of the police. The lack of paperwork may not have anything to do with the food poison and the death of two children in this case, but it may rise doubts to the competency of the teachers in the school and the monitoring agencies in the region, thus adding concerns to the big question of the quality of care for children.
By Tina Zhang