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Air quality near site of Hanoi factory fire checks out, but experts remain wary of health risks

Saturday, August 31, 2019, 16:56 GMT+7
Air quality near site of Hanoi factory fire checks out, but experts remain wary of health risks
A man covers his face as he rides past the site of an inferno at the Rang Dong Company in Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo: Tuoi Tre

Results of air quality tests conducted around the site of a Wednesday factory fire in Hanoi show dust concentration levels and other indicators were within safety limits for human health, a national health institute said on Friday.

An inferno engulfed the Rang Dong Light Source & Vacuum Flask JSC in Thanh Xuan District, Hanoi at around 6:30 pm on Wednesday.

While causing no casualties, the six-hour fire destroyed approximately 6,000 square meters of the firm’s warehouses and factories, causing damages worth around VND150 billion (US$6.45 million).

The National Institute of Occupational and Environmental Health (NIOEH) under the Health Ministry said on Friday it had conducted fast air quality tests near the fire site and found that all indicators were within safety limits.

NIOEH noted that the readings do not negate all health concerns, as heavy rains in Hanoi during the days following the incident could have affected the results.

Soil and water samples collected near the fire site is being tested in the laboratory, with results expected to be announced in four to five days as NIOEH officials are due to work through the National Day holiday, which falls on September 2, the institute said in a statement.

More samples of vegetables grown near the Rang Dong warehouses and factories, as well as fish raised in local farms, are being collected on Saturday, a NIOEH official told Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper.

Vendors sell fruits and flowers near the site of an inferno at the Rang Dong Company in Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo: D. Trong / Tuoi Tre
Vendors sell fruits and flowers near the site of an inferno at the Rang Dong Company in Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo: D. Trong / Tuoi Tre

The air quality testing results came after the administration in Ha Dinh Ward of Thanh Xuan District backtracked on a document which previously advised local residents against consuming vegetables and meat produced within a one-kilometer radius from the conflagration for 21 days.

The document, which was issued on Thursday and retracted on Friday, also advised residents to destroy these produce and evacuate children, elderly people, and those suffering illnesses from the area for ten days. 

This advisory is groundless, “wasteful, and ultra vires,” the People’s Committee of Thanh Xuan District said in a statement on Friday.

Despite the document being retracted, many houses in Thanh Xuan District remained deserted on Friday afternoon as locals were wary of coming down with sickness from toxic chemicals released by the fire.

Rang Dong Company is severely damaged following the fire in Ha Dinh Ward, Thanh Xuan District, Hanoi on August 29, 2019. Photo: Tuoi Tre
Rang Dong Company is severely damaged following the fire in Ha Dinh Ward, Thanh Xuan District, Hanoi on August 29, 2019. Photo: Tuoi Tre

The Bach Mai Hospital in Hanoi said on Friday it has collected samples from 12 people, including ten reporters covering the fire and two local residents, to test for any signs of adverse health effects, with results expected to be out later on Saturday.

Nguyen Trung Nguyen, head of Bach Mai Hospital’s poison control center, said mercury used in the production of light bulbs is fairly safe at room temperature but can vaporize under heat, causing symptoms including headache, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, numbness in the limbs, fever, shortness of breath, and chest tightness if inhaled.

The severity of these symptoms depend on the duration of exposure and concentration levels of mercury vapor in the air, with children more vulnerable to its effects than adults, Nguyen said.

The site of an inferno at the Rang Dong Company in Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo: Hoang Thanh Tung / Tuoi Tre
The site of an inferno at the Rang Dong Company in Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo: Hoang Thanh Tung / Tuoi Tre

Rang Dong submitted a report to the Thanh Xuan District administration on Friday, addressing concerns of a mercury leak caused by the Wednesday inferno.

“We are committed to ensuring the well-being of our employees and local residents and are prepared to welcome authorities to assess the environmental impact [of the fire] as well as hire [experts] to deal with such environmental impacts,” Rang Dong said in its report.

According to the report, Rang Dong’s compact fluorescent lamps (CFL) are made from materials including polycarbonates, unleaded glass, aluminium, and wolfram, which are safe for human exposure.

The company said it has replaced liquid mercury with amalgram in its light bulbs production since 2016.

Fluorescent light bulbs destroyed in an inferno at the Rang Dong Company in Hanoi, Vietnam on August 25, 2019. Photo: Danh Trong / Tuoi Tre
Fluorescent light bulbs destroyed in an inferno at the Rang Dong Company in Hanoi, Vietnam on August 25, 2019. Photo: Danh Trong / Tuoi Tre

However, amalgram is just another form of mercury, according to Dr. Do Thanh Bai from the Chemical Society of Vietnam.

While the amount of amalgram used in fluorescent bulbs production may be less than traditional liquid mercury, it is still a health risk if burned.

Other components of a light bulb can also release harmful compounds including CO and H2S when burned, Dr. Bai added.

A complete assessment of the materials burned in the Rang Dong Company fire is needed to evaluate the degree of environmental harm caused as well as any associated health risks, he said.

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