Environmental concerns mount over toxic spill in China
“The region’s precious natural resources must be protected as a result of this spill,” said Dr Li Lifeng, Director of WWF China’s Freshwater Programme. “We need to work together to ensure a healthy ecosystem and ecological security.”
The toxic spill resulting from an explosion at a petrochemical plant in Jilin, China on November 13th, has leaked massive amounts of the chemical benzene into the Songhua River, already affecting water supplies downstream in the Chinese city of Harbin, a metropolitan area of several million people. Benzene is a carcinogenic chemical in which even small doses in a river system can present significant risks. Authorities have shut off water supplies for fear of contamination, with millions of litres of bottled water shipped in to meet basic needs.
In China, freshwater sources are continuously being threatened from population pressure and rapid economic development. In the last half century, China’s population has more than doubled and has become heavily concentrated along the country’s major rivers — of which some 70 per cent are polluted from untreated sewage and industrial waste. In addition, China has no national legislation on wetlands, and only three provinces — Gansu, Heilongjiang and Hunan — have passed wetland legislation. Slope erosion, sedimentation, intensive land reclamation and industrial pollution are some of the factors that have also degraded water quality and the health of rivers and other freshwater areas like lakes and wetlands.
“The effect of the spill is not only restricted to China’s waters,” said Alexey Kokorin, WWF-Russia’s Toxics Programme Coordinator. “We are afraid that the toxics will soon reach the Amur River and effect Russian populations, people and wildlife alike.”
Environmentalists in Russia are monitoring the Amur River, which is fed by the Songhua River, and is the main water source of Khabarovsk, one of the largest cities in Russia’s Far East.
The chemical spill took place in the Heilong-Amur ecoregion, a high priority conservation region for WWF. The area is home to some of the world’s most distinctive temperate forests and is a critical habitat for tigers, leopards, bears and musk deer. WWF also has projects in Russia’s Primorye Province and Khabarovsk Province focusing on conservation of the endangered Siberian tiger and snow leopard.
“We need much stronger national and international laws to ensure that hazardous and highly toxic substances, like those released in the explosion, are either not produced or are severely restricted,” said Clif Curtis, Director of WWF’s Global Toxics Programme.
“The global community needs to take much more concerted action to regulate industrial chemicals more effectively. Such actions must guarantee that basic safety information of chemicals is systematically provided, and that rigorous procedures and safeguards are in place.”
• The Chinese chemical plant that exploded in Jilin produced aniline, phenol, acetone, and some pesticide intermediates. After the explosion, the chemicals detected along the polluted water systems include benzene, aniline (phenyl amine), nitrobenzene, and xylene. These chemicals, which feature on WWF's list of priority chemicals of concern, all have a certain level of toxic and hazardous health effects. Some of these chemicals are carcinogenic. Some of them have adverse effects on neurological, developmental and on reproductive systems. Benzene for example is lethal to humans exposed to it in high levels. Chronic exposure leads to progressive degeneration of bone marrow and leukemia.
• WWF’s Integrated Forest Conservation project in the Heilong-Amur ecoregion seeks to conserve state-owned forests in northeast China and Inner Mongolia that have high conservation value. It has already supported the creation of three protected areas – Dajiahe, Taipinggou and Dongning Erduan – in Heilongjiang Province, and is helping to ensure that existing protected areas are effectively managed and maintained.
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