Gas leak at Chinese drugs factory leaves villagers vomiting and gasping for breath

Children and adults suffer nose bleeds, nausea after dimethyl sulfoxide escapes into the air during upgrading work at pharmaceutical plant

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 June, 2018, 8:45pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 June, 2018, 9:04pm

More than 60 people, including several children, have been sickened by a gas leak at a pharmaceutical factory in central China, according to local media reports.

The leak at the Huangshi Shixing Pharmaceutical Industry facility occurred at about 6.30am in Baihua, a village in the city of Huangshi, Hubei province, on Tuesday, Chinese news portal NetEase reported on Thursday.

In all, 63 villagers sought medical treatment and three were hospitalised, the report said.

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A witness was quoted as saying the factory emitted a pesticide-like smell that “hit you right in the face”.

“The smell was so bad. It smelled just like pesticide. Even adults could not stand it and felt dizzy,” the person said.

Among those affected was a group of primary school pupils waiting for a school bus. The witness said a boy and a girl vomited and had nosebleeds that lasted about half an hour.

The Beijing News posted footage online of a boy bleeding from the nose and coughing and struggling to breathe. The child was admitted to hospital on Tuesday with a severe allergic reaction to the fumes, and discharged the following afternoon, the report said.

A spokesman for the Huangshi Economic and Technological Development Area Administration Committee – which oversees the area where the factory is located – said the gas leak was caused by work on a factory upgrade.

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In a WeChat notification to residents after the incident, village officials said “dimethyl sulfoxide gas leaked and drifted west of the factory” on Tuesday at 5.40am.

“It evaporated after absorbing moisture in the air. This caused neighbouring residents to feel unwell,” the notice said.

Those affected would recover quickly in clean air, the authorities said.

Dimethyl sulfoxide is an organic compound containing sulphur. Commonly found in drugs used to treat high blood pressure and bladder infections, the compound can cause side effects such as headaches, vertigo and nausea in high doses, according to the Hubei Centre for Disease Control and Prevention.

Villager Lin Xiang said residents had detected pungent gas from the factory at various times since it opened in 2015 and the problem appeared to have worsened recently.

“Usually we can smell the gas after 10pm and it fades a lot by 9am,” The Beijing News quoted Lin as saying.

But it worsened late on Friday: “I could sense a thick pesticide-like smell, even though I had turned on my air conditioner and had the doors and windows closed.”

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A pregnant villager said residents wanted an explanation for the leaks and she feared the effect the conditions would have on her unborn child.

“Living next to a factory is making our lives a joke. I just hope the relevant department can give residents a reasonable solution and ensure we have a healthy place to live,” she said.

“Seeing a child with a bleeding nose and struggling to breathe makes me wonder if my child will experience the same thing.”

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The village is home to three pharmaceutical factories, the other two being Grandpharma and Yanwu.

Earlier this year, residents lodged a complaint about fumes from the factories, according to a report by the Hubei Environmental Protection Department.

Neither Huangshi Shixing nor the Huangshi administration committee could be contacted for comment.