April 11, 2014
Panic buying of bottled water broke out in Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province, on Friday after state media announced authorities had “detected excessive levels of benzene in [its] tap water system”.
Officials found 200 micrograms of benzene per litre – 20 times the acceptable “national limit” – in samples of the city’s water supply, according to reports.
Exposure to benzene, a colourless liquid used to make plastics, lubricants, dyes, detergents and pesticides, has been linked to leukemia and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“Consuming foods or fluids contaminated with high levels of benzene can cause vomiting, stomach irritation, dizziness, sleepiness, convulsions, and rapid heart rate. In extreme cases, inhaling or swallowing very high levels of benzene can be deadly,” the website of the American Cancer Society warns.
It was not immediately clear how Lanzhou’s water supply had been contaminated but Xinhua, China’s official news agency, blamed an unnamed chemical plant. The plant had released toxic “waste water” into the city’s supply, Xinhua said.
The Yellow River, which cuts through the heart of Lanzhou, a city of nearly four million inhabitants, had not been contaminated, government sources claimed.
The announcement that Lanzhou’s residents should avoid drinking tap water triggered panic, with locals “rushing to supermarkets or community grocery stores to stock up on bottled water”, Xinhua reported.
“My family are all scared,” one woman, named only as Ms Luo, told the agency as she filled her trolley with water at one of Lanzhou’s biggest supermarkets. “My husband called to ask me to come here and snap up as much bottled water as I can.”
Photographs showed shoppers heaping crates of mineral water into their trolleys.
The water supply to one part of the city, the Xigu district, was completely cut off, according to the state-run China News Service.
Shi Zifa, a chemistry professor from Lanzhou University, said drinking contaminated water could cause “acute poisoning”.
City officials said they would issue updates on the water’s drinkability every two hours.
Wang Zuguo, a resident, took to the Weibo micro-blog to vent his anger. “It is unprecedented for the capital city of a province to see its tap water so badly polluted that it becomes unsuitable for drinking,” he wrote. “How are several million people supposed to survive on bottled water?” “If we can’t drink tap water, what are we supposed to drink?” wrote another internet user. “Lanzhou has several million people, so how is “don’t drink it” a solution? What happens to those who can’t buy bottled water? Do they have to go somewhere else to drink and eat? Or are they expected to live on air alone?” China’s toxic skies make greater headlines but authorities are also battling a major water pollution crisis after decades of breakneck development.
In 2012 the country’s rivers pumped more than 17 million tons of pollution into its seas, according to official figures, including 46,000 tons of heavy metals.
In February, Beijing said it would spend 2 trillion yuan (£192 billion) on a water pollution campaign in a bid to improve water quality by “30 to 50 percent”. Nearly 60 per cent of groundwater samples were “heavily polluted”, to a 2012 study found.
The big issue is power, the world is literally covered in water. There’s a desalination plant in El Paso that can produce 11 million gallons of fresh water a day by forcing it through filters. It is amazing technology, but you need power.