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Not Everybody Can Report On Everything

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Though virtually uncovered in the U.S., Tianjin China (the port city serving Beijing) suffered a super-massive explosion a little over a day ago.  European coverage has been extensive and, quite frankly ignorant.  That ignorance can be as much of a problem as the disaster itself; if for no other reason than the panic created by ignorance can cause overreaction that worsens the problems.

The reader may be wondering what makes this writer so assured of himself on this matter.  Fair question.  We’ll start with a Masters degree in chemistry and working for almost 30 years as an environmental, health and safety consultant.  Let’s look at a couple of examples of this bad and ignorant reporting.

This Telegraph piece, containing spectacular footage of the explosion says, without sourcing, “It is still unclear what caused the detonation but nuclear experts have been called-in to examine the area.”  That sentence clearly implies that it might have been a nuclear explosion.  Hogwash.  It takes a very precise set of condition to create a nuclear explosion and they are virtually impossible to create accidentally.  Any person with any knowledge viewing the footage accompanying the article would know it was not a nuclear explosion.  Nuclear explosions have a distinct appearance and sequence not evident in these videos.  Further, nuclear explosions produce light so bright that the sensors in the phone used to take the footage would not have survived the brightest part of the blast.

If nuclear experts were called in it was because there is evidence that there was nuclear material in the area – perhaps medical material or other quite ordinary and useful applications thereof – and they are concerned that these materials were spread in an uncontrolled fashion by the explosion.  This is a very different type and lesser hazard than that implied by that ignorant sentence.

The BBC carried a piece about the chemicals apparently involved in the explosion also steeped in ignorance.  They spend most of their time discussing four chemicals, calcium carbide, potassium nitrate, ammonium nitrate and sodium cyanide.  Interestingly they spend most of their time focusing on the toxicity of those materials never really noting that the first three are pretty much of themselves the recipe for a bomb. If I was looking for the source of the explosion, those three chemicals would go a long way towards explaining it – all I need is an ignition source.

Let me pick on just a couple of the more “hilarious” examples from the BBC piece:

One image widely circulated on the Chinese micro-blogging site Weibo, said to be from the disaster site, appeared to show a chemical burning when water was poured on it.

This is entirely unremarkable.  The world is full of things which when on fire cannot be extinguished with water.  Clearly people have forgotten one of Cleveland’s most shining historical moments.  If materials of this type were present in the explosion area, and local fire fighters used water to try and extinguish the blaze, they would have indeed exacerbated the problem.  But in such a case is not the problem the lack of information that the fire fighters had rather than the material itself?

But the most egregious example of ignorant reporting in the Beeb piece concerned sodium cyanide.  Most people recognize that name, it is what is used in the “gas chamber” of criminal execution fame.  Drop a bit in some acid and you generate the highly and acutely toxic hydrogen cyanide gas which in an enclosed space like a gas chamber is virtually instantly fatal.  Hydrogen cyanide can also be generated when sodium cyanide is burned, but the question of fatality from exposure is not nearly as clear cut as in a gas chamber.  I am not saying it is healthy to be around, but I am saying it is not as if the area instantly became a giant fatal gas chamber.

But where the article really turned wrong is it looked up UN protocols for how to deal with a sodium cyanide spill:

In the case of a release of sodium cyanide, for example, the United Nations recommends neutralising it with sodium hydroxide.

Sodium hydroxide is highly corrosive,  a solid and can generate very hazardous fumes on its own in a fire.  Oh, and it can react quite negatively with many of the other materials in the area worsening the crisis not stemming it.  Just how does this ignorant wretch of a reporter propose to apply it in this setting?  They clearly picked up a stray fact and felt obligated to report it even though it is not the least bit helpful.  Not to mention that someone in some setting may act on it with disastrous results.

A disaster of this proportion is horrific.  The loss of life and the injury are heinous.  The economic setback mind-boggling.  The response has to be level-headed, factual and concise.  Reporting that is more fear-mongering than anything else is not helpful.  This needs to be handled by experts that do not have the time in a such a circumstance to explain to reporters all the background information that is necessary to understand the immediately pertinent information.  Reporters need to either come prepared with that background information, or be capable of doing background research competently and thoroughly.  But this stuff is inexcusable.


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