Don’t drink the water

No, they really mean it this time. China National Petroleum Corporation has accidentally poured 100 tons of benzene into the Songhua River up in the northeast.

Municipal water in China is not potable; you have to boil it before using it, and some super-cautious people don’t even use it to brush their teeth. Well-to-do Chinese now often have a water cooler in their homes, as we do. The water cooler featured in virtually all the fully-furnished apartments I looked at when I first arrived. But in normal times the reason tap water isn’t potable has to do with bacteria rather than chemicals– if you boil it thoroughly, it still may not be the best thing you ever put into your body, but it won’t kill you.

For the four million residents of Harbin, though, tap water just got a lot more dangerous. A 50 mile slick is floating its way down the river, right through the city. When Harbin officials saw the benzene coming, they decided to shut off the municipal water system for four days, until the slick had cleared the city and continued on its merry way wreaking havoc further north, on into Russia.

The New York Times talks about this as a hardship for Harbiners, which it no doubt is, but I’m thinking: what about all those people who live in rural Jilin and Heilongjiang provinces, outside of Harbin’s ambit? As much as I want to believe that someone is keeping them safe from benzene, I have a bad feeling that no one’s even trying.

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