Recollections of a Melamine Mom

No. 5

Hello from Chinarrative!

Ten years ago, 300,000 babies in China fell ill with kidney problems. Around six died. The cause? Infant milk formula that had been contaminated with melamine, a chemical compound high in nitrogen.

In this issue, one “melamine mom” tells her story—and that of her son—to Irene Chan, a reporter from Initium Media, a Chinese-language publication based in Hong Kong.

Read translated excerpts of the interview with the unnamed woman below. We’re hoping to include a longer version on our soon-to-launch website. More details to follow.

Do scroll to the end, where we’ll share summaries of some recent favorite long-form reads on China.

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Melamine Mom

He’s my only child, born in November 2006. He’s 11 now, a boy.

He was very healthy at birth. It was a smooth delivery at Peking University First Hospital. All his key health indicators were normal. In July 2007, I began feeding him Scient baby formula. I stopped in September 2008, when the scandal broke. By that point, he had been on it for 14 months.

He developed horrible symptoms during that period: bloody urine, white urine. He began crying nonstop three months after he started on Scient and couldn’t fall asleep. I kept detailed feeding records. A later review showed that his symptoms became very severe three months in. I had to lull him to sleep five or six times a night, ineffectively at best.

We sought treatment everywhere. We returned to Peking University First Hospital and tried the Capital Institute of Pediatrics. His urine was bloody, and his blood urea nitrogen levels were off the charts. We did not give him an ultrasound at the time. The doctors had no idea what was wrong.

Illustration by Tsengly. Courtesy Initium Media.

We consulted many experts. All they said was to wait and see. No one knew what the problem was. The melamine scandal hadn’t broken yet. No one suspected the baby formula. So unfortunately, we kept feeding him the same formula. His daily intake was about 800 to 1,000 milliliters. A mug holds some 200 to 250 milliliters. Can you imagine his intake? My son was tiny, and this was his only source of nourishment.

Initially, I mixed breast milk with baby formula. Before Scient, I fed my son formula made by Abbott. At that time, I and the mothers around me had started paying attention to infant formula quality. Eventually, my son outgrew Abbott when he developed a more refined sense of taste. I switched to several imported brands, to no avail.

A mother I met at a local park who had moved back to Beijing from the U.S. introduced me to Scient. She said it was a foreign brand and tasted good. I tried it and agreed. I also took note of the fact that it was produced in the U.S. It was clearly advertised at the time as being 100 percent American-made, and it was more expensive than domestic brands. I decided to give it a try.

[Editor’s note: Founded in 2002, Scient was registered as a Sino-U.S. joint venture and claimed to source entirely from abroad. After the melamine scandal broke, Scient Chairman Zhang Lidian confessed that the company was actually wholly Chinese-owned and that it mixed foreign infant formula with local ingredients produced by Chinese brand Yashili’s plants in Shanxi province.]

Scient wasn’t any cheaper than the imported brands at all. A can of its premier-line baby formula cost some 200 yuan [around $30], more than the Abbott formula I used to buy. I was quite cautious. I factored in the pricing and the advertising claims of sourcing from abroad entirely.

I never had any inkling that the issue was the baby formula. This is also my biggest regret.

After the Beijing Olympics ended, news of the melamine-tainted baby formula broke. Twenty-two manufacturers were identified. I was dumbfounded. It only dawned on me then that my son’s health problems were the result of the baby formula I fed him.

I took my son for screening immediately, for an ultrasound. The diagnosis was kidney damage and stones in both kidneys. Small stones, more like small crystals, had formed in the central region of both his kidneys. I eventually learned that the crystals are worse than the stones because they easily infiltrate the organ, entering and harming the kidney’s 1 million nephrons, the basic unit of the human kidney.

A child’s kidneys are the size of beans. The nephrons are made up of renal corpuscles and tubules. The crystals block the tubules. Large and concentrated kidney stones can be removed surgically, but the smaller ones are a no-go. They also don’t pass naturally. My son had small stones in both kidneys. There wasn’t anything we could do. Soon he started developing other illnesses frequently—asthma, pneumonia, bronchitis, TB, myocardial damage—which led to multiple hospitalizations. The pattern has continued to this day.

It was impossible for me to work with my child in that condition. I used to be a department head at a foreign company. I was also a senior engineer. My career prospects were quite good. But in those circumstances, I barely had time to sleep. I had no choice but to quit my job. I couldn’t keep taking time off. I felt quite hopeless at the time. I was at my wit’s end.

You asked if I sought legal recourse. I wanted to file a lawsuit, but mainland Chinese courts didn’t handle cases involving the tainted baby formula at the time.

… I demanded several hundred thousand yuan in compensation. In the end, they paid me 2,000 yuan. That’s right—only 2,000 yuan …

I was desperate at the time, shouldering everything on my own. Life was very difficult, very dark.

My son never stopped getting sick all through kindergarten. The consequences were severe every time his teachers dropped the ball in the slightest way. He quit kindergarten twice. He basically skipped first grade because he was in the hospital all the time. He took sick leave in second grade frequently, too. We were at the hospital almost every day. It takes forever to see a doctor in Beijing. You have to get in line, register, pay, then wait. Even ER cases are made to wait five or six hours. It was so hard. I just wanted to leave, to leave that place of sorrow and start afresh.

We moved to Canada in 2015, enrolling my son in school in Vancouver. I dipped into my savings and borrowed money from my family. I did not emigrate to Canada. I am not a citizen. I’m just here to take care of my son. I do not work because I can’t do so legally. All I can do is live off my savings and spend prudently. The pressure is immense …

… There are few people I can confide in. Even if I did share my son’s story, no one would believe me. They’d wonder if his kidney stones had already passed after all these years.

Yet my son keeps hurting. He’s still in a lot of pain. I don’t see any sign of improvement. His urine is still bloody, and he develops fevers frequently. He sweats a lot at night and cries for no reason. I asked him why he cries; he said he’s always in discomfort. He was diagnosed with hand-foot-and-mouth disease after attending a summer camp in July. His urine was very bloody, and his fever lasted nearly two weeks. Even the doctor was spooked. His immune system is very weak. He easily succumbs to all types of illness.

The doctors in Canada have said the gap between my son’s physical, cognitive, and behavioral patterns and the levels of a healthy child becomes more glaring with age. He’s now developing psychological and emotional problems. He has quite the temper and has trouble communicating with others. He doesn’t respond well to adversity and has shown signs of depression. The doctor thinks the situation is quite severe and has referred him to specialists for follow-up treatment.

My son is now 1.67 meters tall. He’s tall like me, but he’s very skinny. He weighs 43.5 kilograms. He’s tired all the time.

I don’t want my son to know that he was poisoned by tainted baby formula. On one or two occasions, I mentioned how great our life is in Canada. I told him if we were still stuck in China, he’d still be drinking bad infant formula and breathing toxic air. But I think he knows what’s going on. He’s a big boy now. When we were at the ER recently because of his fever, a doctor who had never treated him before asked him in English whether he was poisoned by melamine after reviewing his file. He answered yes. I was quite surprised, but I didn’t say anything …

… I took my son for an ultrasound in November. The doctor said he was free of large kidney stones. I asked the doctor whether the ultrasound could detect smaller stones. He said stones less than 1 millimeter wide don’t show up in scans.

The bad milk powder has destroyed my son’s health. It’s destroyed my future, my career, and my whole family. And it’s a ticking time bomb, because the stones haven’t passed entirely.

As a parent, I’m extremely worried and under a lot of pressure. Yesterday was a rare exception: He finally felt better after being sick for nearly two weeks. We went blueberry picking together. He was in an exceptionally good mood and couldn’t stop talking. I asked him why. He said, “I feel especially energized today.”

As told to Initium Media’s Irene Chan.

Translator: Min Lee

Recent stories we liked:

In addition to this issue’s featured excerpt, we would like to highlight the following outstanding Chinese-language stories:

  • Southern People Weekly recently published an excellent package on alternative education. Reporters Qiu Yuanting and Li Ailin profile an experimental primary school in Dali, in the southwestern Chinese province of Yunnan. In recent years, the province has emerged as a hotbed of innovation in early childhood education. In the piece, Qiu and Li track in intimate detail the personal growth of a 7-year-old boy who transfers to the Dali school from a regular primary school in Nanjing. In a companion story, Qiu describes a Chinese teenager’s tumultuous journey weaving in and out of the public school system. It’s a fascinating read due to the sheer audacity of the young man and his older brother, who intervenes on his behalf, while Qiu does a lovely job of capturing both personalities on paper.

  • Bone Doctor: The Rise of Plastic Surgery Plastic surgery continues to gain traction in China not just among young women, but also among men and middle-aged women. This story, which first appeared earlier this month in the Chinese version of GQ, examines a typical day for plastic surgeon Zhang Xiaotian, from making the rounds of the wards in the morning to completing seven surgeries a day. The piece also shows the evolution of the beauty trade over the past few decades, as the influence of social media and online celebrities grows alongside the cost of going under the knife.

  • Everything for the Olympics In another story that looks back on events from a decade ago, this piece in Renwu marks the anniversary of the 2008 Olympic Games, as seen largely through the eyes of some former residents of Wali Township. The historic location, famous for its rice and oily chicken dishes, was chosen as the site of the Olympic Village. Back then, residents didn’t have much time to think about their relocation, and some even felt excited about the move, viewing it as their contribution to the games. Today, upon reflection, some see more clearly the sacrifice they made and wonder whether the upheaval was worth it.

    Construction workers pose during the groundbreaking ceremony for the Olympic Village in Beijing on June 26, 2005. Source: ImagineChina.
  • Tea Lady to the Stars She may never have appeared in any movie credits, but Hong Kong tea server Pauline Yeung has finally received recognition for her contribution to the territory’s film industry. Her dedication to serving tea to film crews for more than 30 years was highlighted when, earlier this year, she received a “Professional Achievement Award” from the Hong Kong Film Awards Association. In this profile of Yeung, also from the Chinese version of GQ, we learn about the challenges Yeung faced, especially at the outset of her career, as well as the physical and mental demands of serving tea to film production crews—which frequently comprised more than a hundred thirsty people, all with different tastes and needs. Yeung’s story also offers an interesting perspective on the development of the film industry in Hong Kong over the years.