Fluoride Action Network

[Editorial] Tianjin accident

Source: The Korea Herald | August 18th, 2015
Location: China
Industry type: Chemical Industry

Precautions need with hazardous materials

One of the worst accidents in China’s recent history involving toxic materials has claimed 114 lives with some 70 people missing and more than 700 injured.

Two blasts last Wednesday at a warehouse in Tianjin caused extensive damage over a vast area and have raised concerns about possible environmental contamination. According to reports, the warehouse was authorized to hold 24 tons of sodium cyanide, but in fact it held nearly 30 times the amount it was licensed to store. Furthermore, the warehouse was located near a residential area and public facilities, including the Tianjin port, in a breach of the law that states that hazardous materials should be stored at least 1,000 meters away from homes and public structures.

A car fire turned into a series of huge explosions when the company-hired firefighters doused the flames with water, unaware that hazardous chemicals, some of them combustible when they come into contact with water, were being stored at the storage facility. Most of those firefighters died in the blasts.

Contamination of the environment is of primary concern during accidents involving hazardous materials. The Chinese authorities blocked off a 3-kilometer radius of the explosion site and began cleaning up, an urgent effort — rain could create dangerous gas and spread the contamination — greatly hampered by the 18,000 damaged shipping containers strewn about the vicinity. Although the Chinese government sought to calm the public about environmental contamination, the water test point closest to the explosion site showed cyanide levels more than 27 times acceptable limits Sunday. It was also reported that cyanide traces have been detected in the seawater near the Tianjin port.

The tragic accident in China recalls to mind the September 2012 hydrofluoric acid leak at the Gumi National Industrial Complex in North Gyeongsang Province that claimed five lives. When firefighters arrived on the scene to put out the fire, they sprayed water over the chemical, turning the hydrofluoric acid into a mist that spread to the surrounding area. About eight tons of hydrofluoric acid leaked and some 11,300 area residents were treated at hospitals. The toxic mist also destroyed 212 hectares of crops and the area was declared a special disaster zone. 

Hazardous materials accidents usually involve workers who are either not adequately trained or who ignore safety precautions. Not following proper procedures during an accident greatly exacerbates the problem.

The disaster in Tianjin should be a wakeup call for the authorities here to inspect the safety of the aging petrochemical facilities at the country’s large petrochemical complexes in Ulsan, Yeosu and Daesan and ensure that operators who handle hazardous materials are complying with all the laws.