68 taken ill after sulphur dioxide leak at plant
At least 68 people were treated in hospital yesterday after a chemical plant in Zhenjiang, Jiangsu province, released poisonous sulphur dioxide gas into the air.
The leak from the sulphuric acid plant owned by Jiangsu Sopo happened about 10am and lasted for about five minutes, according to a company statement. It blamed the release on human error at the plant.
Although the city government played down the size of the leak, people living and working near the plant reported difficulty breathing and dizziness, even after wrapping wet towels around their noses and mouths as advised by authorities.
Sulphur dioxide, a common bi-product of industrial processes, has a pungent, irritating smell. Creating it is an intermediate step in the production of sulphuric acid.
A local radio station reported that 42 people were sent to the city's No 1 Hospital to receive hyperbaric oxygen therapy after the leak. Repeated calls to major Zhenjiang hospitals went unanswered, but there were no known deaths.
In total, the city's emergency medical centre said 68 were sent to hospital.
A worker at the Guofeng Hotel in Jianbi township about two kilometres east of the chemical plant said by phone that the air started to smell foul after 10am. The smell lasted for about an hour.
'The odour was so pungent and choking that I had to use a wet towel to breathe even indoors,' she said, adding that some people at the hotel vomited after the leak. 'I started to feel dizzy after a while.'
The Zhenjiang Environmental Protection Bureau said its tests detected only a 'tiny amount' of sulphur dioxide in two out of the seven air samples it took near the plant and other points around the city. An automatic air quality monitoring station in the urban area showed the level of the gas was normal.
Still, a government hotline advised local people to stay indoors in the afternoon and to take a wet towel while going out because the air was still pungent in urban areas.
'We are all irritated by the remark about a 'tiny amount',' said Weng Lei, a 21-year-old student who was visiting her grandmother near the chemical plant. 'Sixty-eight people were sent to hospital - how can it be 'tiny amount' of sulfur dioxide?'
The number of sulphur dioxide leaks from the plant since May, according to a resident who says the prior incident killed crops