'Chemical cat' on the loose in Japanese city

Unlikely to survive hexavalent chromium dip, officials ask residents to keep an eye out

A cat covered in toxic chemicals is wandering the streets of Fukuyama in Japan, and locals are being warned not to go near.

The chemical cat ended up coated in hexavalent chromium after falling into a tank of the substance at the Nomura Plating factory in the southern Japanese city over the weekend, Asahi Shimbun reported yesterday.

Workers at the plant noticed reddish-yellow feline footprints fleeing the scene when returning to work Monday morning – the approximate color of hexavalent chromium, which is used in a number of industries for tasks like electroplating, welding, and chromate painting. The compound can also be found in things like dyes and paints, where it's commonly used as an anticorrosive.

Upon further investigation, Nomura Plating employees found footage of a cat leaving the factory grounds, and inspection of a 3.4 meter-high tank of hexavalent chromium found that a sheet covering it had been partially turned over.

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"We immediately alerted police, the Fukuyama city and neighbors near our factory," a Nomura representative told Agence France-Presse. "The incident woke us up to the need to take measures to prevent small animals like cats from sneaking in, which is something we had never anticipated before."

Hexavalent chromium is a known carcinogen, as well as a skin, eye, and respiratory irritant. The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration limits [PDF] airborne exposure to hexavalent chromium to just 5 micrograms per square meter, and the average oral lethal dose for humans is a mere 1-3 grams. People working with the material, including Nomura employees, typically wear safety equipment when exposed.

That said, the chromed-up feline definitely got a good dose, and could present a health risk. Fukuyama city's environmental conservation division has warned locals not to approach or touch any cat "that seems abnormal" and to notify police if it's spotted.

No one has seen the cat since the incident, and Fukuyama officials believe it may already be dead. ®

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