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China's Future

Will China chase a better economy or improve the health of its people?

Bonny Chau and Isa Lim are high school students in Seattle, Washington and participants in the One World Now! after school student leadership program.


As we stepped out of the plane, the hot, humid, stuffy air rushed against our faces while we race to the air-conditioned bus with our OneWorldNow! family. We finally entered the most prosperous city in China—Shanghai—the last destination to sum up our experiences as study abroad students with OneWorldNow! Our main target area for studying abroad this year was environmental issues, and specifically for this visit, the steel manufacturing process.

The day after we arrived, in beautiful Shanghai, we visited the most advanced steel company in China, Baoshan Iron and Steel Co. (Baosteel), which is located in the Baoshan District of China. Our first impressions of steel production came from a discussion led by Xinfeng Shen, head engineer of Baosteel. He talked about Baosteel's passion for improving the environment. He claimed that they use 50% of their investment to make their surrounding areas “greener,” so we asked, was that true?As we drove pass the “green” area, we were shocked that this place is a steel factory—there was even a zoo!

Baosteel is the third most competitive international steel manufacturer. It is trying “to manufacture and flood the world with stainless steel products. It was established in 1978 and completed in two phases. The first phase was to have competitively priced steel, and this phase was completed in 1985. The second phase, completed in 1991, was to advance the process of steel production.

While there are many steel companies in China, Baosteel is the only one that actually spends half their investment to improve the environment. They approach environmental issues guided by the famous saying: “reduce, reuse, and recycle.” Baosteel reduces the amount of dust produced by the milling and mining process. Mr. Shen stated that “Baosteel has 219 different methods of dust removal.” During the process of steel production, water is reused many times. They reuse the water and waste products from manufacturing by creating new uses for the products, such as building a suspension bridge from them, which goes from Shanghai Puxi (west side) to Shanghai Pudong (east side).

Baosteel also reduces the size of their surrounding waste dumps by burning waste such as plastic to generate heat along with coal. And an example of their reuse and recycling commitment is that after the 9-11 terrorist bombings in New York, Baosteel bought a large percentage of the remaining Twin Towers to make new steel.

Although steel is used in many things and is important, it can also have negative effects on the environment and human health. And apart from the positive reduce, re-use, and recycle trends, steel can contribute to many health issues and environmental damage due to the harmful substances produced during the process of steel making. These toxic substances lead to air pollution and illnesses.

Every one of us uses stainless steel in our daily lives, in ordinary products like cookware. But stainless steel can cause health problems when an abrasive material is used to clean the pots and pans because scrubbing can release tiny amounts of toxic metals, chromium, and nickel.

The number one pollutant from steel production is a toxic dust. When coal is burned, it forms sulphuric dioxide and dust, and when these mix with fog (water particles) sulphuric acids are produced in the air. Large amounts of dust are produced during the milling process, which is hazardous because dust contains heavy metals such as lead, which can lead to brain damage, reproduction issues, and lung cancer. Another major health issue in the manufacturing process is created by one of the most toxic chemicals, called dioxin, which is happens through burning waste—especially plastic. Dioxin is known as a Class One carcinogen. It may not directly cause cancer, but it destroys the immune system's ability to recognize cancerous cells, and also interferes with pregnancy, can cause lung problems, diabetes, and breast cancer.

Another huge negative health-related factor inside a steel factory is the heat from the burned steel. The reality of this hit us when we walked inside the steel factory because the heat from the burning steel made us think about how dangerous steel production is to the environment and human health.

The temperature inside Baosteel is extremely hot. The burned steel is 1,100 degrees Celsius, which is about 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. When the burning hot steel went pass us, we felt the heat pressure coming towards us even though we were more than 50 feet above the action. This kind of working condition can lead to many health problems because it's too hot and it overwhelms the body's coping mechanisms. This is serious and can lead to fatalities. The most serious health problem from working in an extremely hot environment is heat stroke and hyperpyrexia, which leads to complete or partial loss of consciousness. These illnesses need to be treated immediately and if not treated, it can result in damage to the brain, kidneys, and heart.

Baosteel claims to have a greener factory then most steel companies, and its environmental department continues to work towards a better environment for the community. Yet even the results of its continuous solutions for improving environment have still lead to many health issues and more negative effects on the environment. China's environment is not exactly Top 10 in the world in terms of healthy, so why is its government allowing so many steel factories to function? I can answer that in one word: economy.

Foreign counties have called China's government the friendliest to steel factories. China's steel factories have the potential to become strong leaders in the world steel industry. With its 131 steel factories and a population of 1.3 billion China seems to have more concern for its economy than its environment and human health. However, as Mr. Shen says, “60% of the products that Baosteel produces is for daily life use” so steel factories cannot be totally blamed for environmental health issues—consumers bear responsibility, as well.

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