They built a Chinese boomtown. It left them dying of lung disease with nowhere to turn.

Read the full story in the Washington Post.

Ill and defeated, Xu Chunlin approached the railing, the limits of a search for justice.

Before him was a 30-foot plunge into Shenzhen’s rush-hour traffic. Behind him stood police he had just clashed with. On the overpass with him were about 80 other former construction workers mulling the same desperate calculus.

Leap now? Or wait to die when their lungs gave out?

The journey that led them to that bridge began in the early 1990s. The men were young and healthy then, wide-eyed migrant laborers from rural Hunan province. Shenzhen was a scruffy border boomtown to the south — not yet today’s cosmopolitan hub of 12 million — where they flocked for off-the-books jobs as drillers.

Many Hunanese worked for years, even decades, boring into the bedrock to build subway lines and the foundations of Shenzhen’s whole cityscape. But they didn’t know the inadequacy of the $1.50 cotton masks they were given, or the irreversible harm of inhaling silica dust that caked their faces once their drills bit into granite-streaked crust.

More than 100 former laborers from Hunan have died in the past decade from silicosis, an incurable condition caused by inhaled dust particles that scar and harden the lungs.

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