Old Version


Protesting parents accuse China’s top electric vehicle maker BYD of causing air pollution causing nosebleeds and other symptoms in children, while the company, more successful than ever, insists its operations meet environmental standards

By Yang Zhijie and Li Mingzi Updated Aug.1

Changsha BYD Automobile Co in Changsha, capital of Central China’s Hunan Province

China’s most successful vehicle and battery maker BYD has come under a storm of scrutiny after people living near one of its plants alleged aerosol emissions were causing symptoms such as nosebleeds, sore throats and headaches, particularly in young children.  

On May 6, residents of over a dozen communities near Changsha BYD Automobile Co in Changsha, capital of Central China’s Hunan Province protested outside the factory gates. Some held banners with the slogan “we want good fortune, not bad fumes,” while others held photos of children with nosebleeds. The protests continued for three nights.  

Media picked up the story on May 7, and the allegations went viral. In response, BYD, which stands for Build Your Dreams, issued a statement on the evening of May 7, asserting that the plant in the city’s Yuhua District, which opened in 2012, complied with all emissions laws. The company admitted there might be an issue of unpleasant smells in some residential areas near the plant and had taken measures to improve the situation. But BYD denied claims it was emitting pollution that causes nosebleeds in children and said the rumors were a malicious and groundless attack on the company. BYD added that it called police and would hold those who spread rumors – including local residents – legally accountable.  

The Shenzhen-headquartered conglomerate manufactures new energy vehicles, batteries, energy storage, solar panels and is involved in public transit projects overseas. On June 10, BYD’s stock price surged by 8 percent on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange, making its market capitalization exceed 1 trillion yuan (US$149b), higher than any other Chinese auto brand. 
In response to later online rumors that production at BYD Changsha Yuhua District Industrial Park was suspended for rectification, BYD staff told NewsChina that the factory has “only partially cut manufacturing.” 

Strange Symptoms 
“We moved here in January 2020, and my eldest son suffered five nosebleeds. The latest was at the end of April. My younger child gets mouth ulcers almost every month, and me and my other relatives also get mouth ulcers every month and we suffer from frequent dizziness and headaches,” Lin Yuwei, who lives in Zhongjian Jiahecheng community near the factory, told NewsChina. She added that the symptoms disappeared when they went on holiday in early May, resumed and got even worse when they returned. An informal survey conducted by and among parents in the vicinity before April 2022 claimed that almost 700 children had experienced nosebleeds for unknown reasons. There is no way to back up these claims.  

Yuhua District government officials called an emergency meeting on May 8 to address emissions from the BYD Changsha plant, particularly the automobile painting process. The same afternoon, authorities in Changsha City sent a team to the factory to investigate the complaints. The team included people from government departments, third-party testing institutions and chemical experts.  

In response to an inquiry for comment from NewsChina, as of late May, Changsha City Bureau of Ecology and Environment said the investigation was ongoing and the municipal government will disclose the results once concluded.  

This spring, Wu Lijia’s 8-year-old daughter had three nosebleeds in 40 days. The family lives in the same Zhongjian Jiahecheng community as Lin’s family. In mid-April, a teacher from her daughter’s school, Shazitang Jiahe Primary School, learned that up to 21 children out of the class of 40 had nosebleeds. A teacher at the school with over 30 years of experience said he had never seen so many children get nosebleeds at the same time.  

Chen Zhen, who lives in the nearby Jinghuan Community, told NewsChina that his 6-year-old son who attends Jiatanghe Primary School had nosebleeds twice in the past month. In a WeChat group of some 400 people in the community, parents said over 100 children, mostly preschoolers, had nosebleeds with no apparent cause.  

According to Chen Zhen, over 80 percent of the group claimed to have experienced sore throats. Chen’s teenage son had swollen lymph nodes in March, and despite taking medication, his sore throat lasted for weeks. Chen said he and his wife had similar symptoms, but when he went away on business, he felt better and his symptoms abated, but his wife at home still had a sore throat.  

Like other parents sharing similar experiences, Wu Lijia related the symptoms many claimed to the pungent smell that permeates the neighborhood.  

Her family moved to Zhongjian Jiahecheng in 2020, and later that year she noticed a foul odor, which smelled like a mixture of paint and burning. The situation worsened in March. Wu said one of their neighbors bought a handheld air detector to monitor the air quality. The results indicate that total volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the air reached 1.015 mg per cubic meter, and sometimes hit 1.898 mg per cubic meter, two or three times the national safety standard of 0.60 mg per cubic meter for ambient air.  

VOCs refer to compounds emitted from solids or liquids and turn gaseous, meaning they are lighter than air at room temperature. VOCs are responsible for everyday smells like perfume and cleaning chemicals. They have natural sources – 90 percent of VOCs are produced by plants, animals and microorganisms. Other VOCs are artificial or anthropogenic, and include an array of chemical products, including glue and paint. They can be emitted from new furniture, carpets and scented candles, as well as cooking and frying processes.  

Community members allege the source of the pungent odor is the BYD factory. Sun Hun from Zhongjian Jiahecheng Community told NewsChina that it sits to the north of the BYD factory, and the paint and glue smell is extremely strong in spring, when southerly winds blow.  

Residences and schools surround the BYD factory. According to the Environmental Impact Report for BYD Changsha’s Stamping, Welding and Painting Technical Renovation Project compiled by Changsha Non-ferrous Metallurgy Design and Research Institute in 2021, there are 13 residential areas and six schools that should be covered by the 19 “air environment” protection targets in the report.  

According to the environmental impact assessment (EIA) report, the approval required the painting workshop boundary to be 400 meters away from any new environmentally sensitive buildings such as homes and schools. However, the factory is only 40 meters from the west side of Jinghuan Community. 

 “The BYD painting production line releases toxic gases at night, generally around 10:30 pm,” said an online complaint on the Hunan online political inquiry platform. Since April, online complaints multiplied. Comments included: “The pungent smell permeates the whole community, and we could not open the window,” “The smell which is like burning tires or glue is very uncomfortable, disgusting and makes people feel nauseous and dizzy,” “The lives and health of hundreds of thousands of residents in the surrounding residential compounds are thus threatened,” and “We’d like to hope relevant departments could find the source of the odor.”  

Jinghuan Community was approved by Changsha municipal government in 2006, and Shazitang Jiahe Primary School opened in 2001, both much earlier than the BYD Changsha project. Homeowners in Zhongjian Jiahecheng moved in at the end of 2018, well after the plant started operating.  

Already by 2016 there were complaints from residents who said there was a pungent smell at night. In 2018, a central government team went to Hunan Province to review environmental protection. During the visit, hundreds of residents from Jinghuan Community filed complaints about alleged emissions of hazardous waste gas from the BYD plant. The company promised to stop production and move the foundry. The smell that had plagued residents disappeared. “Yet after just six months, a different stinky smell came again and it continues right up to now,” a Jinghuan Community resident told the reporter. Residents point the finger at the paint workshop. 

Up to Standard? 
According to the 2021 EIA report, the original project did not treat VOCs before they were discharged. Therefore, when southeasterly winds blow in summer it affects downwind residential areas, especially residents of Jinghuan Community which is close to the paint workshop.  

An engineer who worked on the Changsha BYD EIA report told NewsChina on condition of anonymity that EIA reports are all predictive, and only on-site test results can tell whether the requirements are fully met.  

A manager who has more than 20 years of experience in running a car plant explained that of the four major processes involved in vehicle manufacturing – stamping metal to create components, welding, painting and final assembly – painting is the most complex, generating more toxic gases and posing more harm to humans. The paint process involves cleaning, applying undercoat and then a topcoat, as well as drying after each stage.  

VOCs can irritate the eyes, nose, skin and throat. The organic solvent xylene used in painting, for example, can cause irritation to the eyes and upper respiratory tract, and have anesthetic effects on the central nervous system at high concentrations.  

Automobile paint workshops are automated, but workers still need to supervise the processes. Workers entering the workshop must wear respirators and protective clothing and footwear.  

“The equipment needed to meet the waste discharge standards for a plant with a daily capacity of 400-800 units can cost tens of millions of yuan. If you add in the costs of treatment for sewage and chemicals, labor, machinery operations and energy consumption, total costs will be in the hundreds of millions of yuan,” the anonymous manager said. In addition, the environmental treatment equipment is replaced along with the coating equipment once every 7-9 years. Even more important is correct operation of the equipment. Incineration equipment to deal with VOC emissions and water rotation treatment consume large amounts of power, and the activated carbon emissions filters must be replaced monthly.  

“If production is stopped, testing results can easily meet the required standards, but when production starts again, whether emissions can meet the standard depends on the morals of the enterprise,” the manager said.  

On April 29, local communities organized a meeting involving BYD, an occupational disease hospital, the EIA agency and community representatives. BYD’s representatives apologized for causing an unpleasant odor during production but insisted that tests showed emissions met Chinese standards.  

At the end of April, Changsha BYD posted an environmental test report conducted in March in Jiahecheng Community showing that factory emissions met the standards. The results of three tests of 24 types of VOC concentrations were lower than the standard limit.  

An online response from BYD on May 8 to a public complaint from Hunan Ecology and Environment Department, a government body, showed that while there was a pungent odor from BYD’s plant, repeated monitoring of the factory indicated the discharges were up to standard.  

However, residents from Jiahecheng Community did not trust the test results. They questioned whether the tests were done in the early morning when the smell is strongest and if the actual emission concentration is higher than the amount allowed on BYD’s pollutant discharge permit. 

Residents have called to reveal what the standard is on BYD’s permit and demanded new environmental tests. They attempted to find a third-party test institution but have not yet found one. 

Difficult to Prove 
“Even for a third-party testing institution, it is difficult to get an effective sample,” an EIA engineer told NewsChina under condition of anonymity. Almost all waste gases produced by industry are discharged from exhaust outlets. Without the factory’s consent, it is difficult for a third-party institution to get samples. Atmospheric samples collected from the surrounding environment need to exclude exhaust gases produced by other nearby factories, which is technically difficult.  

Ma Yong, deputy secretary-general of the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation said this issue is a typical environmental infringement case. According to Ma, the foundation’s legal team has applied to the government for information disclosure and is awaiting reply.  

Ma learned residents are still waiting for official approval to investigate the alleged pollution, so it is too early to file a public interest suit. Once a lawsuit is filed, it is difficult to gather evidence. Pollutant identification, loss assessment, causality identification and other work are highly professional and technical. Compared with water and soil pollution, damage from air pollution is much more difficult to prove. “How can you prove the factory emits pollutants, and how can you prove that the physical damage comes from the pollution?” Ma said.  

However, in an environmental infringement case, emission compliance is not a necessary condition to exempt the defendant from civil liability. In order to protect the rights and interests of vulnerable groups, an important principle of environmental litigation is shifting the burden of proof to the defendant. Therefore, if the court supports this rule, it will put BYD under great pressure, Ma said.  

The plaintiff only needs to present proof of pollution and physical damage, as well as correlation between the two. The defendant must do everything possible to prove there is no connection. Yet Ma also said that such litigation can be a marathon-like process. “People don’t file lawsuits unless they have to,” Ma told NewsChina.  

“Legally speaking, public interest litigation and civil litigation are complementary. If public interest litigation wins with a valid court decision, residents can use this as evidence to protect their rights and interests,” Ma said.  

Despite the dampening effects of rolling Covid lockdowns across China’s major cities and manufacturing centers in April and May, BYD has posted impressive sales figures for its new energy vehicles (NEV), surpassing global sales for Tesla. On June 2, BYD announced May sales of 114,943 up from 32,800 a year earlier, and in the first five months, it posted sales 507,314 units, a huge year-on-year rise of 348 percent.  

Since 2012, BYD invested over 10.7 billion yuan (US$1.6b) in its Changsha operation. In January and February 2022, the project in Yuhua District produced and sold 39,000 vehicles, up by 373.8 percent year-on-year. A new production base was scheduled to be put into operation in May, which would make BYD Changsha the firm’s largest manufacturing base with the most models, largest capacity and full supply chain.  

So far, BYD has not responded to the allegations. Addressing a potential plan to move the paint workshops from the first phase of the project to the second phase plant, an employee from BYD told the reporter in May that “it is possible, but there is no final decision yet.”

An air quality monitor used by residents near Changsha BYD Automobile Co shows the level of TOVCs (Total Volatile Organic Compounds) far surpasses the national safety standard of 0.60mg/m³