Spill May Have Long-Lasting Impact

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There are many toxic chemicals in a 50-mile slick now moving down China's Songhua River, but benzene is the most abundant and may be the most dangerous. Problems from the spill are likely to persist for some time. John Nielsen reports.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

The 50-mile slick in China's Songhua River contains a variety of toxins that are a threat to people, fish and nearby wildlife. But benzene is the most abundant of these toxins and may also be the most dangerous. NPR's John Nielsen has more.

JOHN NIELSEN reporting:

Benzene is a colorless, highly flammable liquid with an oddly sweet smell. For decades it's been used to make plastics, dry cleaning solvents and house paints, for starters. For a time, reportedly, it was even a popular aftershave. This was before benzene was discovered to be one of the world's most dangerous industrial chemicals. American health officials now say brief exposure to very high levels of benzene can be lethal. Lower-level exposure can cause vomiting and convulsions. Long-term exposure at low levels has been linked to low birth rates, anemia and cancer.

By some accounts, the levels of benzene in the Chinese spill are 30 times what would be considered safe in the United States, levels at which the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would advise victims to take off their clothes and seal them up in airtight plastic bags. Clif Curtis, a toxics expert with the World Wildlife Fund, says it's likely that these health risks will linger long after the spill has passed, partly because these toxins tend to stay inside the things that eat them.

Mr. CLIF CURTIS (World Wildlife Fund): The term is called bioaccumulation, where it--as it moves up the trophic level, it resides in larger and larger quantities and can have a serious effect.

NIELSEN: Eventually, this toxic spill will follow the river into Russia, threatening people who rely on it for food and drinking water. Curtis says the spill will also pass through the homelands of critically endangered animals, like snow leopards and Siberian tigers.

Mr. CURTIS: ...species that have questionable survival rates as it is in terms of low population numbers, and something like this could tip it over the edge.

NIELSEN: The toxic slick is expected to reach Russia in about two weeks. John Nielsen, NPR News.

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