UN to help China and Russia in toxic river spill

A United Nations environmental team is on standby to help Chinese and Russian authorities following the contamination of the Songhua River last week.

The river was contaminated after an explosion at a chemicals plant in the north east province of Heliongkang in China (see related story).

The blast released around 100 tonnes of benzene according to official estimates and soon after levels were recorded in the river at over 100 times the safe limit.

Officials from the Chinese Environmental Protection Administration said that has now been diluted to 30 times the safe limit but the slick has now spread out and is some 50 miles long.

At high levels of exposure benzene can prove fatal and causes leukaemia, anaemia and kidney and liver failure.

Even at lower doses it is exceptionally toxic and can lead to spells of dizziness and sickness.

The river flows directly into Russia and now authorities are bracing themselves for the toxic slick.

Officials in the Russian city of Khabarovsk said they were fortifying water treatment facilities with 50 tons of activated carbon. The slick is expected to reach the city on December 10th – 12th.

The city is anticipating an emergency shutdown of the water system if necessary.

China has formally apologised to the public and to Russia and a hot line has been established between the two countries environmental departments, the Xinhua news agency reported.

The Joint UNEP and Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Afaairs Environment Unit said it was ready to deploy experts to help with such activities as environmental assessment and technical support.

No official request for help has been received as yet, but the unit is continuing to monitor the situation and remains in close contact with all relevant partners and donor governments.

David Hopkins

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