A chemical safety study of Chinese industry and pathways for future sustainable development

Safety risks have become an obstacle to the sustainability of the chemical industry in China since many chemical companies were forced to close down by China’s government in the past three years. This study investigates chemical safety in China in order to identify the causes of the major accidents and accompanying casualties, formulating the safety management needs to develop a sustainable chemical industry in China. First, the evolution and current status of China’s chemical industry is analyzed to identify possible safety issues rooted in the industry. Second, a thorough accident investigation is conducted based on official statistics and collected chemical accidents in China in the period 2004–2019. Furtherly, the main laws, regulations, guidelines, standards and measures related to chemical safety are analyzed and compared with those in Europe. According to analyses related to the chemical industry, chemical accidents and safety legislation and measures in China and Europe, the current problems with respect to chemical safety in China are discussed systematically. Based on research findings, we propose recommendations for the improvement of chemical safety so as to promote the sustainable development of the chemical industry in China. This study also provides basic data and information for future studies on the safety and sustainability of the chemical industry and major accident prevention in other countries.

An overview of the chemical industry in China

The output of the chemical industry in China reached $1.5 trillion in 2017, accounting for nearly 40% of global chemical-industry output (Hong et al., 2019). Fig. 2 shows the GDP contributions and jobs supported by chemical industries in China, Asia-Pacific (exclude China), North America, Europe, North America, Latin America & the Caribbean, and Africa & Middle East in 2017. 


China’s chemical industry not only contributes most to the GDP but also supports most jobs all over the world. For example, the number of jobs supported by the chemical industry in China is over 4 times that of Europe. Conversely, the number of companies in the European Union (28,329 companies in the EU at the end of 2017) (Kiss, 2019) is greater than that in China (23,366 companies at the end of 2017) (EMIS, 2019). As a result, the number of jobs per chemical company in China is far more than that in Europe. Once a major accident occurs in a Chinese company, it may thus result in more casualties than that in Europe. The number of chemical companies decreased slightly in recent three years since China closed companies with a high safety risk. This decreasing trend will continue

due to recent large accidents in China (EMIS, 2019). The total profit largely increased from 2015, which may urge chemical companies to increase production while may ignore the importance of safety. This may be one of the reasons why chemical accidents in the last three years are at a high level (620 chemical accidents occurred in the period 2016–2018 and resulted in 728 deaths).

In order to obtain scale benefits, exchange material streams, optimize energy streams and manage centrally, chemical clusters or so called chemical industrial parks have formed in China since the 1990s. Fig. 3 shows the distribution of chemical industrial parks in different provinces.


By 2018, there are 676 (petro-) chemical industrial parks: 57 national-level industrial parks, 351 provincial-level industrial parks and 224 prefectural-level industrial parks (Xinhua News Agency, 2019). These chemical industrial parks are mainly distributed in the provinces of Jiangsu, Shandong, Hubei, Henan and Inner Mongolia. These chemical industrial parks are mainly distributed in the provinces of Jiangsu, Shandong, and Hubei. Jiangsu is one of the richest provinces in China and has a developed industrial system that needs a lot of chemical products as raw materials. Besides, the Yangtze River flows through Hubei and Nanjing, providing convenient transportation for the development of the chemical industry. Most of the chemical companies in the two provinces distribute along the Yangtze River. Moreover, Hubei is situated in the middle reaches of the Yangtze River and the Hubei section of the Yangtze River is the longest in all provinces. The Shengli oilfield in Shandong is able to provide considerable raw materials for the petrochemical companies in the province. The coastline of the Shandong province also provides convenient maritime transportation for petrochemicals and chemicals.

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Chemical industry in China: The current status, safety problems, and pathways for future sustainable development