For months, Luo Xiaoqiang has lived with an odor she describes as a mix of chemical fertilizer and burning plastic.
"The smell will wake you up in the night," she said in a telephone interview. "For the past two to three months, I've been sleepless."
Luo is a resident of Fenghuang City, a community of about 7,000 in Suzhou, China. Only about 2 kilometers from the community is a factory operated by Apple supplier Catcher Technology, which builds aluminum cases for the company's laptops. The byproduct of that manufacturing has left neighboring residents with an odor they claim is both unbearable and damaging to their health.
This past weekend, the factory was temporarily shut down by the local authorities after residents had repeatedly complained to government officials. Residents, however, worry that once the factory goes back online the smells will remain, even as the air pollution emitted will meet safety standards.
"We don't care about the standards," Luo said. "We think their standards are lower and not up to what they should be."
Catcher Technology could not be reached for comment. But in a filing with the Taiwan Stock Exchange on Monday, the company said the chemical materials and odors used in its manufacturing process meet the safety marks. Catcher, however, wants to completely remove the odor in order to meet residents' requests. As a consequence, the shutdown could impact Apple MacBook shipments.
Since 2008, residents in the community began noticing the odor, with the smells reaching their worst starting around June of this year. One resident, who would only give her surname as Xia, said people in the community have reported breathing problems and pain in their throats. Her 5-year-old child is among those affected, she said.
"It's been so strong that even when you close the window, the fumes will still come through," she said. "When I smell it, my body just feels heavy and worse. When I don't smell it, the symptoms just go away."
In response, residents have appealed to the local government and Catcher Technology, while also sending letters to Apple, which did not respond for a request for comment. A spokeswoman for the local government said the complaints from residents prompted authorities to inspect the factory earlier this year. Those findings showed that part of the exhaust equipment was not functioning properly. But even as changes were made, the odor still remained.
The government then gave Catcher Technology by the end of this year to complete improvements to the factory's exhaust system, with a Sept. 30 deadline for the first phase. The factory also had until Oct. 8 to reduce by half the spray coating production used in the factory.
"The factory had already met the requirements. But residents are still not satisfied," said Yee Fang, a spokeswoman with the Suzhou Industrial Park Administrative Committee. The dissatisfaction prompted authorities to shut down the factory until it gets full approval from government monitoring groups.
Ma Jun, a Chinese environmentalist with the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), said his group has been in talks with the residents affected by the factory. In August, IPE released a report criticizing Apple for failing to monitor the conditions at its suppliers in China. Following the report, Apple for the first timeheld talks with IPE about the alleged problems occurring with its suppliers.
"The Chinese government is paying more and more attention to pollution control, especially when it affects the health of people," Ma said. He also noted that Apple suppliers have begun to contact environmental groups about improvements being made at their factories. Foxconn, the maker of Apple's iPhone and iPad, recently informed IPE it would install new pollution control equipment in one of its factories in the Chinese city of Taiyuan following complaints from local residents.
In the case of Catcher Technology's factory, the local government said it does not know when it will resume operations. Residents like Luo only hope that when it does, they never have to smell the odor again.
"Only in the past two days have I been able to sleep well," she said. "We hope they will listen to residents' demands. But right now we are just waiting."