Tianjin’s chemical contamination fears continue as rain brings foam, skin burns

By Ella Wong, August 19, 2015

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Almost a week after the devastating explosions at a chemical warehouse in Binhai, and fears are mounting over possible chemical contamination after rain fell on Tianjin yesterday, bringing reports of skin irritation and a mysterious “white foam” on roads near the blast site.

Officials had previously warned that rain could react with some of the chemicals stored in the warehouse, including 700 tons of sodium cyanide, which could produce the poisonous gas hydrogen cyanide if exposed to water.

Residents, reporters and volunteer workers complained yesterday of feeling burning sensations or itchy skin, according to the South China Morning Post.
A volunteer posted photos of irritated skin after rain in Tianjin

Officials also warned residents of the evacuated apartment complexes to be wary of an unnamed powder if they go home to retrieve belongings. “Do not touch the powder, the substance is dangerous, and especially don’t put water on it. If you go home to get your things, carefully take your things away and don't touch anything on the ground,” Tianjin Environmental Protection Bureau’s chief engineer Bao Jingling said.

An apartment in Tianjin is decontaminated

Photos spread on social media showing Tianjin’s streets awash in rainwater with white foam, similar in appearance to soapy water.

White foam after rainfall in Tianjin

The head of Tianjin’s environmental monitoring center, Deng Xiaowen, said the white bubbles were a normal occurrence after rain.

Weibo users responded with skepticism, asking if it was normal where Deng lives for rainwater to look like it contained laundry detergent.

White foam appeared on Tianjin's streets after rainfall

Questioned by a Beijing News reporter, Tianjin Environmental Protection Bureau’s chief engineer Bao Jingling said they sent a team to investigate the road where the photo was taken, but did not find any white foam. He added, “Apart from the 10 minutes I spent at home at noon, I spent the whole day watching the rain. I personally did not see any skin-burning white foam on Tianjin’s streets.”

We asked a chemical expert who said white foam and skin reactions are unlikely to be caused by the chemicals that we know were present in the warehouse (calcium carbide, ammonium nitrate and sodium cyanide, or their breakdown products upon combustion).

One chemical that would produce “a soapy feel” upon contact with skin is sodium hydroxide, a caustic cleaning agent (used in the home as a drain opener) that may have been used to clean up the cyanide. However, since sodium hydroxide is not a gas, it is unlikely to be in the air post-clean up. While it’s possible the fires produced gases that could cause caustic rain, this is also unlikely as they’ve had a number of days to disperse.

Rather than rainfall, the main risk – aside from those posed by any undisclosed chemicals – is potential cyanide contamination of the area’s groundwater. Although cyanide in water isn’t easily absorbed by skin, the danger is in ingesting contaminated water or breathing in hydrogen cyanide gas that would slowly be produced.

Two days after the explosions, eight times the normal level of cyanide was found in drainage outlets near the blast site, according to China Daily, though officials insist they have so far contained the pollution and are continuing to monitor air and water quality.

Tianjin authorities monitor the air after deadly chemical explosions

65 people, including 49 firefighters, are still missing, People’s Daily said this morning.

Meanwhile, heads have begun to roll as authorities announced 10 officials from Ruihai International Logistics have been detained and Yang Dongliang, the director of the State Administration of Work Safety and former vice-mayor of Tianjin, is under investigation by the party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.


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