The fallout from last week’s massive explosion in the Chinese port of Tianjin continues to worsen, despite Beijing’s best efforts to play down the danger to the public.
The official death toll from the apocalyptic blast - which was described by witnesses as akin to a nuclear explosion - has risen to 114. Some reports suggest the number of people confirmed killed may ultimately rise to 1,400. Some 6,000 have been displaced and more than 700 are reported injured. "The whole sky was lit up, and the blast wave sent me into the air," a first responder told local media, describing the scene that unfolded last Wednesday. "My helmet was gone. It was like a different world, with flames falling like raindrops on my head."
Speaking of raindrops, authorities now fear that storms in the area could transform sodium cyanide (which is water soluble) present on the scene into hydrogen cyanide. Here’s the CDC’s definition of hydrogen cyanide:
Hydrogen cyanide (AC) is a systemic chemical asphyxiant. It interferes with the normal use of oxygen by nearly every organ of the body. Exposure to hydrogen cyanide (AC) can be rapidly fatal. It has whole-body (systemic) effects, particularly affecting those organ systems most sensitive to low oxygen levels: the central nervous system (brain), the cardiovascular system (heart and blood vessels), and the pulmonary system (lungs). Hydrogen cyanide (AC) is a chemical warfare agent (military designation, AC). It is used commercially for fumigation, electroplating, mining, chemical synthesis, and the production of synthetic fibers, plastics, dyes, and pesticides. Hydrogen cyanide (AC) gas has a distinctive bitter almond odor (others describe a musty "old sneakers smell"), but a large proportion of people cannot detect it; the odor does not provide adequate warning of hazardous concentrations. It also has a bitter burning taste and is often used as a solution in water.
Tianjin’s vice mayor said “around 700 tonnes” of sodium cyanide was being stored at the facility. That’s a problem because as it turns out, the warehouse was only authorized to store around 24 tonnes.
As we noted over the weekend, China has tried its best to go by the Fukushima playbook. In short, the overarching goal is to minimize panic among the population, even if it means blatantly lying about exactly what it is that the public is exposed to. After all, the priority among government bureaucrats has always been to minimize social disturbance even if it means sacrificing countless individuals that could have been saved if only the government had told the truth from the beginning.
This mentality led China to claim last week that no hazardous chemicals had leaked into the water. That contention has come under increased scrutiny. "The closest water test point to the blast site revealed cyanide 27.4 times standards on Sunday", AFP says. The State Oceanic Association admitted that "minute traces of cyanide have been detected in waters near the Tianjin port." Here's more from The Guardian:
With the official death toll raised to 112 and the number of missing people at 95, rescue workers wearing gas masks and hazard suits were racing to clear the area before the weather changes because of concerns that wind could spread the toxins and rain could cause a dangerous reaction with chemicals at the site.
Eric Liu, a campaigner at Greenpeace East Asia, said that without precise data on how much calcium carbide was involved in the blast, it was impossible to predict how serious these reactions could be.
“The other danger rain poses is that chemicals stored in warehouse could be washed into water supplies, with a potentially large impact on local ecosystems,” Liu said. “However, again, without more specific information it is difficult to say what impacts exactly.”
Meanwhile, the public is getting restless as some suspect the government of obscuring the facts and masking possible corruption. Here's NBC again:
State media Monday carried large photographs of Premier Li Keqiang with local officials in identical whites shirt and trousers visiting the scene of massive toxic Tianjin explosions.
Li has promised a thorough investigation and punishment for those responsible — even while the authorities were busy closing down dozens of "rumor-mongering" websites for demanding pretty much the same thing.
Tianjin is tricky for the Communist Party because, according to numerous local reports, there appear to have been big regulatory and legal failures — from the type and quantity of highly toxic chemicals stored at the site to the apparent lack of an inventory and the location of such a dangerous stockpile so close to residential areas.
While the name of the company that owned the warehouse complex has been made public — Ruihai International Logistics, a four-year-old firm that employed about 70 workers — the company's website has been taken down, as has the corporate registry database of the city of Tianjin. That has fueled online speculation that local officials were involved with the company. No evidence to that effect has been presented, but such involvement would not be unusual in China.
And here's The Globe and Mail:
Online, meanwhile, authorities struggled to cleanse a raging conversation that attacked the official response and the system that had allowed such a disaster to happen. Social-media users shared photos of families rallying behind a giant handwritten banner demanding an details about the missing: “Either we see them alive or see their bodies,” read one.
Anger emerged in hashtags calling the situation “A real life Pinocchio” and demanding “Tanggu explosion truth,” a reference to the Tianjin neighbourhood where the blasts left a gaping crater.
“We demand the truth, and strict punishment to comfort the victims!” wrote one person on China’s Facebook-like Weibo site.
And while citizens can "demand the truth" until they are blue in the face, they will apparently have to do so very quietly and not in a public forum, because as The Guardian goes on to note, "fifty websites have been punished for 'spreading Tianjin blast rumours' and close to 400 Weibo and WeChat accounts have been shut down." So while the public will always be at an informational disadvantage in the wake of a disaster thanks to government efforts to maintain order, that goes double in China, where we imagine the suppression of online discussion will continue until the death toll and the fallout becomes so difficult to downplay that Beijing will be forced to either acknowledge the true extent of the catastrophe or face widespread social upheaval.