OUR BURNING PLANET
KwaZulu-Natal community left reeling with health fears after toxic chemical warehouse fire
Residents in a community in Cornubia in KwaZulu-Natal are concerned about toxic effects of fume inhalation after a fire gutted a pesticide warehouse about two weeks ago. Meanwhile, specialists are investigating and have been deployed to support efforts to address the pollution impacts resulting from the United Phosphorus Limited fire.
The community of Blackburn, a location in the Cornubia area in northern KwaZulu-Natal, is concerned about the stench and the effects of smoke inhalation after the fire that saw a warehouse belonging to Indian multinational pesticide company United Phosphorus Limited (UPL) being burnt during the recent unrest in the province.
The stench can still be picked up as you drive into the area of Blackburn, though residents said the smell had reduced somewhat. In the actual building, some smoke was still visible from the warehouse during a visit to the area on Thursday.
The community is worried that the smoke and lingering fumes could have a negative impact on their health and that of their children. This comes after the burning of the warehouse which housed chemicals used in the creation of pesticides and herbicides. UPL is still to reveal some of the chemicals that were burnt in the fire but a DM article showed that the company markets a range of toxic formulations on its South African website, including 52 insecticides, 124 herbicides, 43 fungicides, rat poison, fumigants and other compounds.
Due to large amounts of water used to put out the fire, chemicals spilt into the Umhlanga stream and into the Umhlanga River. The municipality has sent through a public service announcement van that drives around warning parents not to allow their children to play in a nearby stream as it is not safe.
On Thursday, trucks from waste cleaning company Spill Tech were conducting a clean-up operation. One worker said they were cleaning up to contain the spill from the UPL warehouse.
In a statement on 19 July, UPL sent out a warning to the community advising those “with asthmatic conditions and very young infants to avoid the immediate surroundings of the Cornubia warehouse”. The company advised residents with health concerns to seek medical advice. Residents who were in close contact with the smoke cloud were also advised to wear a standard double-layer Covid-19-type surgical mask or a soft cotton mask. Those with dry noses were advised to lubricate with nasal tract remedies that are available at pharmacies or pure petroleum gel and not menthol rubs.
But community members remain worried about their health. For many residents, it is often difficult to avoid the area as they live in it. George Nokode (22), who is a fisherman, is among them. It is also difficult to easily access healthcare as he is often trying to look for work. Besides being worried about the smell from the fire and the chemicals, he is also scared to go and fish in the stream, his regular fishing spot.
“I’m now scared of going there to fish because we have been told that there is a chemical in the water. I’m scared that I might be sick, and even die,” he said.
Pretty Ndlovu (24), who recently moved into the area, says there is growing worry in the community about the implications of the fire.
“We stay with young children and they have been breathing in the fumes from the fire. We are not sure of the impact this is having on their health. From the time the fire broke out I have been feeling a difference in my chest when breathing. Others living with me have been experiencing the same thing,” says Ndlovu.
She says when the fire broke out there was a terrible smell. “The smoke would come into the house even when the doors and windows were closed. You had to end up using a blanket to cover your face so that you could breathe,” she says. She developed a cough and had other symptoms including a tight chest. She says this was probably because she has been asthmatic from time to time.
Ndlovu says it is unfortunate because the area is home to many people who are unemployed and can’t afford healthcare – especially private healthcare – and most can’t afford to buy medication.
“We get healthcare assistance from a mobile clinic that comes by once a week every Monday. When the fumes were at their strongest we couldn’t get assistance because that’s when there was unrest,” she says.
As the municipality was informing the community about the dangers of using the water stream close to them and the warehouse, others living in the area were oblivious to what was happening with the stream.
Mbali Diyane (24), a mother to a four-year-old, says the smell now differs from day to day. “Yesterday, Wednesday, 21 July, there was a strong smell. When I woke up my chest was tight and it was hard to breathe properly. Even now my chest is still tight,” she said.
She is worried about the effect of the smoke inhalation on her child. She doubted that people who were burning and looting knew what was being kept in the warehouse.
Another resident, Fikile Tshemuza (25), said he didn’t know what had happened with regard to the stream. He said he’d seen the vans from the municipality coming through but was not aware why they were getting the warning.
The audio announcement was pleading with the community to keep kids away from the stream and not to drink the water as there is a “strong chemical”.
In the statement last week, UPL said it had consulted with toxicologist Dr Gerhard Verdoorn and he would be providing guidance about the health implications posed by the release of the products that were contained in the warehouse. His view was that there is minimal risk of any long-term effects on the health of those exposed to the smoke.
“However, exposure in the short term to some of the chemicals contained in the crop solution products may result in dermal, eye and respiratory irritation.”
In the warehouse there were fungicides and herbicides, most of which were probably destroyed by the extreme heat of the fire and in most cases can be expected to have burned out into the atmosphere.
The Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE) announced that a team of specialists had been deployed to support efforts to address the pollution impacts resulting from the UPL warehouse fire. On Thursday, 22 July, a task team of specialists from the DFFE, the Department of Water and Sanitation, the KZN Department of Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and eThekwini Municipality visited the site.
In a joint statement after their visit, they noted that progress had been made in fighting the fire and that measures had been put in place to stop the water pollution. They also noted that there was a decrease in the number of fish that were washing up at the estuary mouth.
While the marine conditions are believed to have improved, beaches in the area will remain closed. Test results from a water sampling that will be done will be key in opening the beaches. Community members have been urged not to pick up the washed-up fish.
UPL has been asked by the national government to make a full disclosure of all the materials and chemicals that were burnt. “Such inventory will include the description of the chemicals and of the pollutants arising out of the fire incident,” said the statement. DM/OBP