INDUSTRIAL SAFETY

People's Daily says chemical paraxylene is no more harmful than coffee

People's Daily says the public has exaggerated the dangers of projects using paraxylene, but its article fuels concern over petrochemicals

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 June, 2013, 5:05am

The People's Daily ran a lengthy article yesterday saying paraxylene (PX) is no more harmful to people than coffee, in an apparent bid to "de-vilify" the controversial chemical that has led to several protests.

But the piece sparked scepticism and criticism online, with some people accusing the newspaper of deliberately ignoring the true reasons behind the protests - concern about the petrochemical industry's poor safety record and a lack of transparency involving decision-making and safety supervision by both the industry and local governments.

In its full-page coverage, the Communist Party's official mouthpiece said the public had exaggerated the dangers of PX projects, which are "flourishing globally", citing sources from the powerful petrochemical sector.

Lu Dapeng, a spokesman for China Petrochemical Corp (Sinopec), the country's largest oil refiner, told the newspaper that PX was "a transparent, colourless liquid with a fragrant smell, and even tastes slightly sweet".

And contrary to the perception that PX is highly toxic, the daily said PX was no more harmful than coffee, in terms of the cancer risk to people, citing the International Agency for Research on Cancer, under the World Health Organisation.

Documents on the agency's website show there is inadequate evidence to conclude that PX is carcinogenic, while coffee is "possibly carcinogenic to the human urinary bladder".

The "mild chemical" irritates eyes and the respiratory system when people are overexposed, and long-term exposure can lead to headaches, depression and insomnia.

The newspaper said PX is an indispensable component of many necessities, including clothes, plastic bottles, capsules and building material. When mixed in petroleum, PX can help enhance fuel quality and offer an essential solution to worsening smog problems in many cities.

Citing Sinopec, the newspaper said China produces 63 per cent of the PX it consumes, and if planned projects were scrapped, the rate would drop to less than 50 per cent by 2015.

This is not the first time that official media has tried to defend PX projects. In May, CCTV said the chemical was less dangerous than natural gas. The reports came after protests in May over plans to build PX projects in Yunnan and Sichuan provinces.

Some microblog users questioned why the People's Daily failed to mention the fact that the production process of PX and some of its byproducts involve carcinogenic or highly toxic chemicals such as benzene, ethyl acetate and acetic acid. Benzene is known to cause leukaemia and other types of cancer, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

One Sina microblog user asked, "Can People's Daily assure us that the production process of PX is completely non-toxic? … as a party newspaper, coming to such a rash conclusion is obviously speaking for the [petrochemical] interest groups. This is irresponsible at a time when air pollution is so severe."

Li Bo , a senior adviser to the environmental advocacy group Friends of Nature, said the piece obviously failed to address concerns over PX projects.

"The public is actually against the way decisions are being made on PX projects. They are completely left out in the site-choosing process … empty words about how safe the product is, without giving the public a say, will not help solve the problem," he said.

An associate professor specialising in environmental protection at Peking University said PX was still classified as a hazardous chemical, despite its low toxicity, and the production process poses risks that require high-level safety management.