APPLE orchard farmers in eastern Shandong Province, a major apple production area in Cina, are frequently exposed to toxic chemicals while wrapping apples in bags that are coated inside with pesticides to prevent dark spots on the apple skins.

The province's Qixia and Zhaoyuan cities produce billions of kilograms of apples a year and sell them across the nation.

Planters often wrap young apples in paper bags as they try to protect them from blemishes from insect bites.

But they now are replacing plain paper bags with pesticide-coated bags made by unlicensed workshops in an effort to produce more apples with a smooth surface and fine appearance, thereby boosting sales, the Beijing News reported yesterday.

"The pesticides irritate the throat. Youngsters might as well wear gloves and masks when wrapping up the apples," said Liu Guoqiang, a 60-year-old planter.

A strong chemical odor emanated from the white powder that blossomed up as Liu started to wrap up the apples, the paper said.

Manufacturers and sellers of the pesticide-coated paper bags refused to disclose the ingredients, while local planters and officials of agricultural cooperatives admitted using highly toxic pesticides such as asomate and tuzet, a mixture of thiram, ziram, and urbacid.

Direct and lengthy exposure to the highly concentrated toxic chemicals can leave excessive amounts of residues on the surface of apples.

No standards followed

The pesticide-coated bags usually are made in family-style workshops. Liang Yugang, owner of a 40-square-meter factory in Zhaoyuan, said a sack of pesticides worth 30 yuan (US$4.71) can make 20,000 pesticide-coated bags on average, which can sell for 1,000 yuan.

The owners of unlicensed workshops don't follow standards saying each bag should have a certain dose of pesticide, judging the amount only by feel, the paper said.

Despite the lack of either standards or the disclosure of the ingredients, the workshops prospered.

Almost every household that owns apple orchards in Qixia and Zhaoyuan has switched to the pesticide-coated bags because wholesalers buy only apples of good appearance, said Sun Shaoqian, a local apple grower.

It also boosted related businesses. The number of stores selling the bags has topped the number of restaurants in Qixia, dubbed "China's apple city," the paper said.

Authorities proposed banning arsenic-containing pesticides last year. It is commonly thought in the industry that two such products, asomate and urbacid, are likely to be banned in the near future.

Apples produced in Shandong Province account for more than half of all apples sold in Shanghai markets, according to Hou Yuxin, general manager of Punan Agricultural Wholesale Market in the city.

Hou said apples must go through residue checks three to four times before they are allowed to go on sale in Shanghai.

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