Work safety watchdog's retraction on gas leak

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 22 May, 2009, 12:00am

A top safety watchdog has retracted its verdict of a suspected gas leak in Jilin which left hundreds of people sick, after it conflicted with the findings of another central government agency. The move has raised questions over the credibility of the two agencies.

On Monday, on its official website, the State Administration of Work Safety said that it should increase supervision on chemical plants, and learn from a leak at the Jilin Connell Chemical Industry Co the previous week, essentially confirming that there had been such an accident.

The statement caused a stir because a panel of experts organised by the Ministry of Health last week ruled out the possibility of pollution after hundreds of workers from a neighbouring plant, Jilin Chemical Fibre Co, had reported that they had become ill, prompting an investigation.

However, after widespread media coverage of the conflicting reports, the work safety administration quietly removed mention of the gas leak from its statement.

An unidentified official told The Beijing News that the leak had been caused by 'an error at work, and the administration had rectified it'.

The reversal caused an uproar, with media questioning if the deletion had been more than just a mistake. 'The administration owes the public a sensible explanation. Neither the image of the city nor the interests of authorities should be a reason for hiding the truth,' the newspaper said in an editorial.

'If the leak proves to be true, shouldn't health authorities associate the leak with the ... reactions of workers from Jilin Chemical Fibre and reopen their investigation?'

Jilin Chemical Fibre, which is located next to Connell Chemical, said its workers had complained of an overpowering smell since April 23, and many of them had suffered headaches and nausea. Since May 4, more workers had complained of nausea, dizziness, chest pains and dry throats, and suspected the source was a poisonous gas leak from Connell Chemical.

The Jilin city government confirmed that more than 1,000 people had felt sick and 161had been treated in hospital by May 13. Blood tests had been conducted on 328 workers, but none was positive for the poison.

On May 14, a report by the Ministry of Health's experts ruled out chemical pollution and said the reactions were mainly psychosomatic. It also rejected the possibility that pollution had come from Connell Chemical, because 'the carbon monoxide, aniline and benzene discharges from Connell Chemical were all below the national standard'.

The 'psychosomatic factor' explanation was far from convincing for workers and their families who fell ill. They complained on the internet and to the media that they had not imagined their symptoms. They also said it was hard to believe the 'psychosomatic factor' would make so many people ill at the same time.