This weekend the Chinese city of Handan — which has a metro area population of nearly 9 million — was forced to cut off its water supply after contamination by industrial chemicals.
At least 9 tons of the chemical Aniline are believed to have leaked from a "loose drainage valve" at a factory in the neighboring Shanxi province into a nearby river, while 20 tons were contained in a local reservoir China Daily reports.
Aniline is used for manufacturing polyurethane and can be toxic to humans. There were reports of scores of dead fish in the river by Friday evening, though no human casualties have been reported so far as we know.
What's really worrying is the timing. According to reports in Chinese media, the leak was first discovered during a routine check on December 31st. While Handan's residents are now using water from another supply, it is believed that they may have been exposed to the chemical for at least five days without any sort of warning.
The Telegraph reports that when the news of the spill finally came out over the weekend, water in supermarkets began to sell out as panic buying set in. "We can't flush our toilet and we can't cook at home. The restaurants are out of water too," one resident told a Chinese newspaper.
Worse still, to critics this looks like the second cover up in a matter of weeks in the Shanxi province. Just days ago authorities said that officials in another part of the province had taken too long to announce a December 25 railway tunnel cave-in that resulted in the deaths of eight workers.
The Wall Street Journal's James T. Areddy reports that we're beginning to see political fallout, with acting governor Li Xiaopeng, the son of unpopular former Chinese prime minister Li Peng, taking heat, and the mayor of the town that contained the factory forced to apologize.
The case highlights China's ongoing problem with openness in the wake of events large-scale health events — few China-watchers have forgotton the government's silence after news of an outbreak of the SARS virus in 2003, for example.
And with so many factories built close to rivers in rapidly industrializing areas, this may not be an isolated incident.
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