Knowledge exchange on environmental incident response in China

My journey to Chengdu with a mission of the crisis coordination center of the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management.

The week before Christmas 2018 I joined a mission of the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management to China with the aim to exchange knowledge about crisis preparedness and response in case of (large) environmental incidents.
After decades of industrial growth, the Chinese government is trying to curb the numbers of accidents in factories, mines and plants. Official statistics indicate that industrial accidents and deaths have diminished. However, industrial accidents continue to take place and China is working very hard on prevention, preparedness and response to chemical emergencies.
The largest Chinese industrial accident of recent times was the incident in Tianjin in 2015. A series of explosions killed 173 people and injured hundreds of others at a container storage station at the Port of Tianjin. One of the explosions involved the detonation of about 800 tonnes of ammonium nitrate. Fires caused by the initial explosions continued to burn uncontrolled for days.
The most recent incident was in November 2018, an explosion near a Chemical Industry Company plant in Zhangjiakou. The explosion tore through roughly 50 vehicles, including 38 trucks that had lined up to deliver chemicals and other goods to factories in the zone. At least 23 people died and 22 were injured.
In the Netherlands, the scale of industrial accidents and environmental emergencies is much smaller. One known by many of us, was the fire at Chemiepack at the industrial and harbour area in Moerdijk in 2011. Many chemicals were taken up in the fire, an enormous cloud of smoke was noticed in the area and 170 people reported health effects.

How do the Chinese deal with chemical risks?

Chemical companies are encouraged to move to chemical parks. It is important to separate chemical industry from urban areas to minimise the number of potential victims during incidents. But next to that, there is a huge environmental challenge. Most industrial areas are on the banks of the three main rivers in China: The Yellow River, Yangtze River The Division director who gave a presentation, also lovingly called the Yangtze River: ‘Mother river of the Chinese Nation’and West River. If an accident in a chemical factory happens, these chemicals are likely to end up in the rivers. Moreover, transport of chemicals on the water and accidents on bridges can cause problems for the ecosystem as well as potential health risks.

The Ministry of Environment and Ecology together with other governmental bodies have made protection plans for the Yangtze River. There’s also environmental risk maps available that can be used to prioritize enforcement of environmental laws.

What about the water?

Since the rivers are an important source of drinking water, people are very aware of the need to protect the large river systems. Along the Yangtze river there are many companies with a high potential environmental risk like metal industry, textile companies, pharmaceutical companies, warehouse storing and chemical companies. In the Jiangsu province alone, around 30 environmental emergencies take place per year along the Yangtze river banks.

In China there’s not as much monitoring of river water quality as taking place as in the Netherlands. On a regular basis only a few chemical parameters are measured in the water like Chemical Oxygen Demand (COD), ammonia and nitrogen. However, specific target screening is performed following accidents.

A large part of the water supply originates from the rivers and a smaller part comes from wells. Many Chinese drink water from the tap after boiling it.

What did the Dutch delegation share?

The Dutch team shared experiences on the risk management and safety in the Rotterdam harbour area. Next to that the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management developed a tool that can be used to assess the environmental situation during the first stage of a crisis; the Flash Environmental Assessment Tool (FEAT). Sjaak Seen form the Safety Region Rotterdam Rijnmond demonstrated how this tool can be used during incidents.

My role was to share how risk assessment of chemical substances in (sources of) drinking water is performed in the Netherlands. I talked about the state-of-the-art laboratory equipment which is used (e.g. HILIC), the screening methods we use, effect-based measurements (bioassays), how to derive provisional health-based guideline values or use the TTC (Toxicological Threshold of Concern) principle. Also, the Dutch experience with emerging contaminant pyrazole in the Rhine and Meuse in 2015 was shared and the role the National Crisis Structure (CET-md) played in this incident. Furthermore information about ‘Watershare’ was given and the Chinese Academy of Sciences expressed their interest to work together on bioassays for chemical risk assessment in water.

Another presentation I gave was about Dutch research on risk communication and my personal experiences on this topic for the past 15 years. Research shows that if perception of risk by lay people is taken into account while communicating about risks, the message is trusted more. Next to that a number of factors influences the perception of risk. These factors are for example: voluntariness, controllability, openness, trust and media attention.

Research demonstrates that if authorities are more open about the situation, the message is trusted more. Based on science, the main focus of Dutch risk communication is currently to address the perceived risk. For example in case of a chemical fire, there’s a perceived risk of cancer. Recent research shows that the message which contains the sentence ‘the risk of cancer is very low’ was consistently more trusted than the same message which said ‘there’s no health risk’.

Last but not least I talked about the role of the Public Health Advisor HazMat (Hazardous Materials) of the Public Health Services in setting up a human biological monitoring campaign during chemical incidents. I co-authored the Dutch National Guideline on human biological monitoring following incidents and carried out the role of Public Health Advisor HazMat role for 14 years in my previous job (advising on more than 100 chemical incidents). I also showed how the Dutch National Crisis Structure for environmental and water incidents (CET-md) works, since I will be participating in CET-md on behalf of KWR from 2019 onwards.

What was my most striking experience in China?

The emergency drilling exercises. The Chinese have competitions to improve their preparedness to chemical and radiological scenario’s. In some provinces there are 600 contestants which participate in very well organised drills. They are taking air, water and soil samples according to  protocols. Victims are decontaminated, chemicals on the water contained and press conferences rehearsed. The thought behind these competitions is that it is good for morale, it is also an excellent showcase for the public, procedures can be standardized, professionality is improved and environmental awareness increases.

Mutual enthusiasm about the things we’ve learned from each other did us start thinking about a possible new meeting in the Netherlands next year.