Wake up and smell the carcinogens

By Saidia Green

Imagine yourself thousands of kilometers from Calgary, in the northeastern part of China, looking over a petrochemical plant in Jilin. The plant has just experienced a catastrophic explosion and chemicals are beginning to spill into a neighbouring river, the Songhua. The spill contains the cancer-causing chemical benzene and it keeps flowing uncontrollably until there are 100 tonnes (that’s 20 elephants) of it in the Songhua and the slick is 80 km long. This is what happened in Jilin on November 13.

If you were to follow the slick down the Songhua River, on November 21 you would come to the city of Harbin, home to 3.8 million people. Harbin cuts off its water supply as the slick approaches and citizens store thousands of bottles of water and buckets filled with water to last the coming few days. Six thousand people on the outskirts, mostly people who make their living through fishing, are evacuated.

It’s now November 26 and the slick passes Harbin. Water supplies to the city are restored on November 27, but small amounts of chemicals will have frozen in the river, and fish have washed up on the shore, poisoned to death. The spill is not done yet, for the Songhua is a long river that will travel many hundreds of kilometers, until it meets with another larger river, the Amur River, which runs through Russia before heading out to Sea of Okhotsk.

If you float along the Amur River around December 10th you’ll come upon the Russian city of Khabarovsk. Here another 1.5 million people take their water supplies from the Amur River. They too will need to shut off their water supply and hope the majority of the contaminants pass them by.

This accident shows exactly why environmental problems like pollution should be taken seriously. Most rivers in China and in many countries around the world have slowly become polluted, but just like tsunamis, hurricanes and earthquakes, it often takes a large disaster to get our short attention spans on another area of the world and onto the environment. Pollution is never a national or municipal problem: pollution doesn’t recognize political borders and will go wherever water and air currents take it. The people in the Russian city of Khabarovsk know this well, as they will have their lives threatened by an explosion that took place hundreds of kilometers away. It is important we understand and act on these issues as humans, not nations.

Having tonnes of contaminants suddenly dumped into a river is a hell of a way to start caring about pollution. We shouldn’t need a disaster to remind us that we are part of the environment itself; we all take air, water and food into our bodies and it becomes part of us as molecules are taken apart and incorporated into the proteins and amino acids that make up our flesh and organs, our cells and DNA. Whatever we do to the environment, we do to ourselves. If you think this is an exaggeration you should talk to anyone living in Harbin or Khabarovsk, anyone with asthma or with cancer caused by smoking.

Mother Nature is nominated for Time’s Person of the Year, in relation to Huricane Katrina. Perhaps with all the disasters, both natural and man-made, taking place this year, Mother Nature is trying to tell us something about using up and polluting our planet. How many disasters is it going to take before we start listening? Nothing should be as important as the environment–not even the economy, politics, or money–because it’s the environment that keeps us alive with the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat. Each one of us needs to stop thinking of environmentalism as a curiosity of our society that only a tiny fraction of people believe is important and begin thinking of a healthy environment as something necessary for our very survival.


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