Boats carrying methanol catch fire in China

Four methanol-loaded vessels caught fire in Central China on Monday afternoon, according to state-owned news service Xinhua, but reports said the small amount of the toxic chemical detected in the river was "unlikely" to cause serious contamination.

The four vessels, which are owned by a “water transport company from east China’s Jiangxi Province,” were loaded with a total of 576 tons of methanol, with the sunken vessel hauling 49 tons, Xinhua reported.

The fire broke out on one of the boats at the Chenjiadun pier on the Hanjiang River and soon spread to the other three vessels, burning the chemicals they carried, Xinhua said, then “triggered small explosions from time to time, leaving pungent smells in the air.”

The Hanjiang River in Wuhan provides drinking water for an estimated five million people.

The local environmental authorities – Xinhua cited – have not found signs of leakage of methanol, but the municipal government have organised a group of experts to prepare “precautionary measures for fear of chemical leakage.”

State media also said that the environmental authority took water samples at the four sources, but test “didn’t contain excessive levels of methanol.” The report also said that water samples would continue to be taken every 15 minutes, and if the water is found to be polluted, pipelines would be closed within one minute.

Methanol is a light volatile flammable poisonous liquid alcohol, used as an antifreeze and fuel. If ingested, it can cause headaches, severe abdominal, leg and back pains, loss of vision, and even death.

This fire in Wuhan is one of numerous industrial accidents with environmental consequences in China reported in recent months, as the country rushes to expand its economy.

Dana Gornitzki

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