Toxic slick of polluted river water reaches Chinese city

A toxic slick of polluted river water reached the outskirts of one of China's biggest cities on Thursday after an explosion at a petrochemical plant nearly two weeks ago. China said the blast had caused "major pollution," spilling benzene compounds into the Songhua River from which Harbin, capital of the northeastern province of Heilongjiang and home to nine million people, draws its drinking water.

Local officials warned residents on Thursday to be on the look out for symptoms of benzene poisoning, which in heavy doses can cause anemia and other blood disorders, as well as kidney and liver damage. And the governor of Heilongjiang, Zhang Zuoji, ordered hospitals to brace for possible cases of poisoning.

"If there are any cases of poisoning, we must concentrate our energies and do everything to treat them, ensuring there's enough equipment, staff and medicine," a newspaper quoted him as saying. Zhang also promised to drink the first glass of water from city taps once the pollution passes.

A provincial government spokesman said the 80 km (50 mile) stretch of pollution passed Harbin's water supply inlet early on Thursday and was to flow past the city itself on Saturday.

Residents' reactions ranged from stoic acceptance to anxiety, but there were few signs of panic in Harbin, where most residents continued to work and shops and restaurants remained open.

"It's worrying, because it may not have a strong smell or color, so you can't tell when it's gone," said Hong Shan, a retired official exercising beside the river. "It's up to the government to keep us informed. We can't tell ourselves."

Tickets for trains and buses leaving the city were available but scarce — as is common in this crowded country — and some residents were still preparing to take children away till the slick had passed and school returned at the end of the month.

The explosion happened at a chemicals plant in neighboring Jilin province on November 13 only a few hundred metres (yards) from the Songhua River. Five people were killed, reports the AP. I.L.

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