SHIJIAZHUANG, China — Hundreds of Chinese parents, some cradling infants, converged on the company at the heart of the tainted baby formula scandal Thursday, demanding refunds and asking what they can safely feed their children.
Thousands of others filled hospitals, many hovering over sons and daughters hooked to IVs after drinking milk powder tainted with melamine, a toxic industrial chemical that can cause kidney stones and lead to kidney failure.
The scandal highlights the changing family dynamics and economic growth in China. A generation ago, women had little choice besides breast-feeding. Now, supermarkets are filled with dozens of brands of baby formula, marketed to women who continue working outside the home even after they give birth.
Yao Haoge, an 11-month-old baby with two large kidney stones, had been drinking Sanlu formula since she was born because both of her parents work. They had been puzzled by their little girl’s fevers and dark urine, but it never occurred to them that she had kidney stones brought on by her formula.
Now, like many of the babies at the Peace Hospital in Shijiazhuang, Haoge has an IV drip hooked into a vein in her head.
“We don’t make much money, but we wanted to buy good milk powder,” said her father, Yao Weiguan, a day-laborer from a small town an hour’s train ride from Shijiazhuang.
Baby milk powder laced with melamine, used in plastics and fertilizers, has been blamed in the deaths of four babies. More than 6,000 others have been sickened. Some 1,300 babies, mostly newborns, remain hospitalized, with 158 suffering from acute kidney failure.
The Sanlu company reportedly received complaints about its formula as early as March and tests revealed the contamination by early August, just before the Olympics. Sanlu went public with a recall on Sept. 11 after its New Zealand stakeholder told the New Zealand government, which then informed the Chinese government.
Melamine has no nutritional value but is high in nitrogen, making products with it appear higher in protein. Suppliers trying to cut costs are believed to have added the chemical to watered-down milk to cover up the protein deficiency. The country’s quality control watchdog has found that one-fifth of companies producing milk powder in China had melamine in their products.