Residents of the southwestern Chinese province of Guangxi have been panic-buying bottled water following a toxic cadmium spill in their local river.
Official media first reported the spill of mining waste containing the carcinogenic heavy metal on Thursday, although local residents had been complaining of dead fish in the Longjiang river for nearly two weeks.
"The pollutant is called cadmium," said a duty officer surnamed Zhu who answered the phone at the Liuzhou municipal government offices on Friday. But he added: "You can still drink the tap water."
"We have followed the early warning procedures and our contingency plan," he said. "Now the water is drinkable."
Zhu said the Liuzhou government had been warned that the toxic spill was heading their way on Jan. 18.
But Liuzhou resident Liu Xinmin said most people were taking the government's announcements with a pinch of salt.
"Right now we are pretty much all using bottled water," he said. "It's because of the pollution, so a lot of people are using bottled water for drinking."
"[The government] told us we could drink the tap water ... but we are still a bit uneasy about that," Liu said.
Officials admitted that excessive cadmium levels were detected in the Longjiang River, a tributary of the Liujiang River in Hechi City on Jan. 15, killing fish and prompting panic-buying of bottled water.
Residents of Liuzhou, a city downstream of the spill, were now buying up all available stocks of bottled spring water, shop employees said.
"The bottled water was sold out just a few hours after we got a new delivery from the wholesaler," said an employee of the Lianhua Supermarket branch on Liuzhou's Jiefang Road. But she added that she was still drinking tap water herself.
Meanwhile, an employee at the Darunfa supermarket branch in Liubei district surnamed Zhou said the store had been selling five times the usual quantity of bottled drinking water in recent days.
"Most of the customers are buying it in boxes," she said. "We have had to order extra supplies."
Calls to the Liuzhou water resources department went unanswered during the Lunar New Year holiday on Friday.
However, the official English-language China Daily newspaper quoted Liuzhou environmental chief Gan Jinglin as saying that the pollution had reached the Liujiang river on Thursday.
"The cadmium density of water samples in the first several kilometers of the main stream downstream Longjiang River was 0.006 milligrams per liter of water on late Thursday afternoon, 20 percent higher than the official limit," Gan told the paper.
Official media blamed the Guangxi Jinhe Mining Co. for polluting the river with its mining waste.
An employee who answered the phone at the company declined to give details. "I don't know about this; the leaders are all in a meeting," she said.
Local fire authorities in Hechi City have poured hundreds of tons of neutralizers into the Longjiang River to dissolve the contamination in recent days, the China Daily said.
Sichuan-based environmental activist Yang Yong said heavy metals pollution is far more harmful over the long-term than air pollution.
"Heavy metals ... do great damage to the human body," Yang said. "Once they reach a certain concentration, they cause a reaction through the entire system which leads to certain illnesses, including cancer."
"They are so harmful because they build up over time, and so people don't think about them very much."
Reported by Gao Shan for RFA's Mandarin service and by Lin Jing for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.