Doctors in northwestern China say authorities are withholding information about a food contamination case that has led to the deaths of a dozen people and sickened some 120 others, raising suspicion over the source of the poisoning.
The food contamination, which affected mostly ethnic Uyghur residents of a village outside of the city of Hotan in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region on Aug. 20, was linked to vinegar served at a large communal meal to break the traditional daily fasting Muslims observe during the holy month of Ramadan.
According to a Tuesday report by the official Xinhua news agency, residents of Sanju (in Mandarin, Sangzhu) village had consumed vinegar from two plastic barrels that had previously contained toxic antifreeze and began to feel sick the following morning.
Xinhua said police are still waiting for results from toxicity tests to confirm the source of the poisoning.
But a doctor from the Guma County Hospital, where several of the victims were treated, said Tuesday that authorities were holding back information on the contaminant.
“It is a secret. Everybody has been treated and has already been released from the hospital,” the doctor said.
“They wouldn’t tell us. The government is now carrying out a test at the prefectural level and they haven’t notified us what the contaminant is.”
The doctor said he didn’t understand why the government would keep the information from the hospital.
Another doctor from the area said that it is unlikely a small amount of antifreeze would have such lethal effects on the villagers.
“If antifreeze is ingested up to a certain point, it won’t damage the human body,” he said.
“If it killed these people almost instantly, the vinegar would more likely have been contaminated with a very serious chemical which could destroy your liver, kidney, and heart. It must have been something stronger than antifreeze.”
Antifreeze commonly contains a chemical known as ethylene glycol, which causes symptoms such as diarrhea and vomiting.
In a phone interview on Thursday, local police station chief Turghun Sabir said he knew nothing about the source of the contamination and could not answer any questions related to the matter.
“Before I speak about this issue, I will have to request permission from my superiors,” he said, before adding that he could no longer talk because he was busy with police work.
Xinhua said that at least 11 people were left dead from the poisoning and that about 120 others had been sent to the hospital because they had been sickened by the vinegar.
The report said that a six-year-old girl was among the dead and that another person remained in critical condition, adding that the remaining victims had been released from the hospital after they were treated.
A man from Sanju village said Monday that at least 13 people were killed by the tainted vinegar.
“My father told me that a funeral was held for 13 people at the mosque during prayers,” he said.
The villager said all of the victims were sickened after eating lang pung, a soybean salad which is coated with vinegar, from a local food stall.
“I didn’t know all of those who died, but I knew three. They were Tohtikhan, Gulkiz, and Atakhan.”
A woman resident of the village said that Tohtikhan, who owned a restaurant next to the food stall, didn’t die from eating the lang pung.
“She borrowed some vinegar from the stall owner and ate two hoshang (fried meat-filled buns) with vinegar. The same day, she got a stomach ache and went to see the doctor. But she passed away around 3:00 a.m.,” she said.
The woman said that Tohtikhan’s son Araphajan, who had recently passed his national entrance exams for college, also ate one hoshang with vinegar and was sickened from the contaminant, but was treated at the hospital and survived.
A 22-year-old college senior at Xinjiang University in the Xinjiang capital Urumqi named Rukiya Ablet who was working an internship in the area also died, she said.
Another woman resident of Sanju said that a village official named Patigul Matrehim also died from the food poisoning.
“Patigul Matrehim had a very severe stomach ache and died before she could even get to the doctor.”
Series of scandals
China has been hampered by a series of food contamination incidents in recent years involving illegal or poor-quality additives.
In 2008, milk producers added the industrial chemical melamine to milk powder in order to make their product appear higher in protein. At least six children died and some 300,000 were sickened by the powder.
A total of 21 people were convicted for their roles in the scandal, and two were executed.
The government said after the 2008 scandal that it had destroyed all tainted milk powder, but reports of melamine-laced products have regularly re-emerged.
Food contamination can also stem from revenge attacks in China, where citizens have easy access to poisons and chemicals, though firearms and other weapons are tightly controlled.
In April, a dairy farmer was discovered to have tainted the milk of a competitor with poisonous nitrite, which left three children dead and sickened 35 others.
China's Ministry of Health reported that at least 45 people died in food poisoning cases across the country in the first six months of 2011, and the majority of the deaths were caused by food tainted by toxic chemicals.
Reported by Irade for RFA’s Uyghur service. Translated by Mamatjan Juma. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.