The scene of the Tianjin explosion, showing smashed windows and a smashed and burned car. • Photo by Voice of America
The scene of the Tianjin explosion, showing smashed windows and a smashed and burned car. • Photo by Voice of America

Some combinations are deadly. Sodium cyanide and water is one such deadly combination that when ingested or inhaled, can block oxygen receptors in our body, making it a serious public health risk. This past week in the city of Tianjin, shaken by the chemical explosions of the past week, concerns that sodium cyanide may be present in the water system and the air have caused authorities to issue evacuation orders within a 3-kilometer radius of the explosion.

The real question emerging from the explosion that took place in Tianjin, China last week is why was 700 tons of sodium cyanide sitting in a storage facility barely 500 meters from residential areas?

Videos of the explosions in the storage plant located in the Binhai industrial zone in Northeast China have become a common sight by now. In one of the videos, the initial curiosity of onlookers with steady cameras quickly becomes one of shaky horror and disbelief as explosions rumble toward the building they live in. The aftermath pictures show charred bodies with unrecognizable features piled atop one another amidst burnt cars and shattered buildings. All of this is painful to watch. Of the 114 dead, only 54 are accounted for. The others will have to be identified through DNA tests. More than 700 people have been injured and the local hospitals are overflowing.

The catastrophe of the recent events have numbers and cents, and some history to it. Ruihai International Logistics, the company responsible for illegally storing 700 tons of sodium cyanide, in addition to three other poisonous chemicals, was located in the Tianjin free trade zone. The largest FTZ in Northern China, the Tianjin port area attracted the chemical industry with its tariff-free storage facilities. Large quantities of toxic chemicals needed for mining, such as sodium cyanide, or calcium carbride for PVC plastic production, are produced in cheap factories in the region, then stored at the port and shipped out. Many of the workers hired in the field are contract workers, poorly trained, with precarious employment. The hazards associated with these chemicals are then placed disproportionately on the communities and workers in these areas, many of them also lowly paid migrant workers. Basic safety regulations, such as the requirement that hazardous materials be stored at least 1 kilometer away from residential areas were obviously disregarded. There were three major residential neighborhoods located by the storage facility.

China has long been heralded as a cheap source of goods. It is widely known that poor working conditions and flagrant disregard for safety regulations contribute to these low production costs. Tianjin was not an isolated incident. Last year, an aluminum dust explosion killing 146 people took place at a metal parts factory in Kunshan, a free trade zone in the Jiangsu province. The car parts factory was supplying companies such as General Motors, Ford, and Audi, among others. The high casualty and death count was also related to the fact that more workers were in the factory that weekend, rushing to make weekend overtime pay to supplement their regular low wages.

The destruction in Tianjin and the explosion in Kunshan—distant as they may seem—are nodes along the commodity supply chain that circle back to the United States, and to us here in Seattle. On one level, we are consumers of the products produced there. The labor conditions under which cheap commodities are made with large profit margins for American companies, should also be our concern. On another level, as a major port city along the Pacific Northwest with China as a primary trading partner, the safety of Chinese ports are important to us as well. In fact, the port of Tianjin is a sister port to the Port of Tacoma. The economic relationships between the two regions rightfully also extend into a concern for the well being of both communities. Last but not least, many of us, Chinese or not, can also empathize in the sadness and anger regarding the senseless loss and death to the profit margin that Tianjin has just witnessed.

Please join the Pacific Rim Solidarity Network, a progressive Chinese/Chinese American collective in Seattle and China Democracy and Human Rights Alliance for a vigil for Tianjin on Sunday, August 23 at 3:30 p.m. For more information, visit

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