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April 12, 2014

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Contamination likely caused by waste from chemical plant

RESIDENTS of Lanzhou, capital of northwest China’s Gansu Province, rushed to buy bottled water yesterday after the city government said the local water supply contained dangerously high levels of a carcinogen.

According to tests carried out yesterday morning at a local water plant, the level of benzene in the main supply was 160 micrograms per liter, far above the national limit of 10 micrograms, the city’s environmental protection office said. Benzene is a colorless carcinogen used to make plastics.

Veolia Water, a Sino-French joint venture that is the sole supplier to Lanzhou’s urban areas, said that in tests carried out between Thursday evening and yesterday morning, the benzene level ranged from 118 to 200 micrograms per liter.

As of yesterday afternoon, levels at the plant had fallen to 78 micrograms per liter, the provincial government’s information office said. Authorities warned people not to drink tap water for the next 24 hours.

“The contaminated supply pipe has been shut down and activated carbon has been deployed to help absorb the benzene,” Xinhua news agency quoted the office as saying.

An initial investigation found that the contamination was likely caused by wastewater from a chemical plant, the Lanzhou government said on its website, without naming a culprit.

Excessive levels of benzene were noted in a 3-kilometer stretch of pipeline operated by Veolia Water, which intersects at several points with pipelines from nearby chemical plants.

Authorities will distribute free bottled water to all those affected by the contamination, while fire engines will transport water to people in hilly regions, Xinhua said.

A heavily industrialized city of 3.6 million people, Lanzhou ranks among China’s most polluted. According to Xinhua, more than 2.4 million people have been affected by the latest contamination problem.

In high concentrations benzene can increase the risk of cancer.

Chen Baohua, a professor at Lanzhou University’s College of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, warned residents not to touch or drink the contaminated water.

The Gansu government said yesterday that the incident had not caused any contamination of the Yellow River, which runs through the city and is a major water source for the province.

The contamination threat sparked a run on local stores.

“I had no idea what benzene was, but my husband called and told me to buy as much bottled water as I could,” a woman surnamed Luo told Xinhua.

Huanghe Origin Food Beverage Co, the city’s main barreled water supplier, said it has readied 50,000 barrels to meet the high demand. It normally sells about 15,000 barrels per day.

The contamination is the second to affect Lanzhou in just over a month. On March 6, residents reported a strange odor when they turned on their taps, which the government attributed to high, but safe, levels of nitrogen and ammonia.


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