Cup of green tea? No, thanks

Fears over phenol spill in China's Yangtze River.

The chemical compound phenol, also known as carbolic acid, has been detected in the Yangtze River – the largest river in China and the country’s primary source of drinking water. Authorities in Shanghai have released an official statement, suggesting that the chemical may have found its way in to the country’s drinking supply as a result of a spill from a South Korean [Always someone else’s fault Ed.] cargo ship in the southwest area of nearby province, Jiangsu.

The announcement has triggered a predictable surge in demand for bottled water, as large numbers of consumers continue to report a change in the smell of their tap water.

This incident comes at a time of particularly low consumer confidence in the Chinese food and drinks industry. Earlier this year, a water source in the southern province, Guangxi, became contaminated with the toxic metal cadmium, known to have originated in a nearby mining facility. In 2008, China’s largest milk powder company, Sanlu, come under intense legal pressure over its responsibility for the deaths and illnesses of thousands of people as a result of melamine poisoning.

Authorities in Shanghai are on alert and prepared to quarantine the reservoir if necessary, as well as increase hospital support for those who have so far been taken ill. No deaths have currently been reported in connection with this incident.

Irrespective of their threat-level, incidents such as these remind us of the susceptibility of water sources to contamination and the rapid effects that contamination can have on surrounding populations. It will be interesting to see how China responds. It might be seen as a useful way to monitor national response and containment efforts carefully, and a training tool for future high threat-level incidents. If recent history is any guide however, China is more likely (based on their recent track record of ecological disasters) give a 'meh’, ignore the fundamental problem, and continue a hundred years behind everyone else.

Tags: Threat, Chemical

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