Our Burning Planet


Here it is: The toxic stockpile of chemicals in torched United Phosphorus Limited Durban warehouse

Here it is: The toxic stockpile of chemicals in torched United Phosphorus Limited Durban warehouse
The UPL warehouse north of Durban, torched during the July unrest, triggered an environmental disaster. (Photo: Mlungisi Mbele)

United Phosphorus Limited, one of the world’s largest chemical multinationals, refuses to disclose what poisoned Durban rivers, the city’s air and its beaches in the wake of a fire last month. Now amaBhungane has accessed the inventory, which includes suspected carcinogens, neurotoxins, chemicals that ‘may damage the unborn child’ and tons of ‘highly caustic’ substances that burn skin on contact.


Disclosure: We amended the story after publication to reflect that UPL is listed on two stock exchanges in India and not the New York Stock Exchange. We apologise for the error. 

For more than a month, Durban has suffered through the toxic fallout from a fire at the United Phosphorus Limited (UPL) chemical warehouse in Cornubia on the North Coast. 

Wetlands and rivers have been contaminated, tons of dead fish have been removed by hazmat crews and beaches have been closed. Meanwhile, residents who coughed their way through the fire’s toxic fumes for the first 10 days are now wondering whether they will suffer long-term health effects.

And for more than a month, the company responsible, the agro-chemical giant UPL Limited, has refused to publicly disclose which chemicals were stored in its warehouse. 

The UPL warehouse was set alight on 12 July during the public violence following the imprisonment of former president Jacob Zuma. The fire was eventually extinguished on 22 July, by which point the chemically contaminated run-off from fighting the fire had reached the Ohlanga river, the Umhlanga lagoon and popular beaches north of Durban.

When the company’s commercial director Jan Botha appeared before a parliamentary committee last week, he suggested that “now is not a time for apportioning blame”, while once again refusing to publicly disclose what UPL had stored in Durban, in the middle of a shopping hub, 400 meters from a school and upstream from the informal settlement of Blackburn Village.

Beaches in Durban have been closed since Friday, 16 July, when dead fish and crayfish started washing up on shore, victims of the chemical spill from the UPL warehouse.

What amaBhungane’s investigation has confirmed is that the 14,000m2 warehouse held millions of litres of chemicals, some classified as “harmful”, “toxic” or “very toxic”. These include:

  • More than 26,000 kilograms of Masta 900, an insecticide containing the “very potent neurotoxin” methomyl, for which “contact with skin, inhalation of dust or spray, or swallowing may be fatal”.
  • Another 1,800 litres of methamidophos, also a “very potent neurotoxin”. 
  • More than 40,000 litres of products using the herbicide paraquat, which poses “high risk for all life forms”.
  • Over 19,000 kilograms of Terbufos, another “very toxic” chemical presenting “high risk to all forms of life”.
  • More than 600,000 kilograms of products containing tebuthiuron, a chemical classified as “very toxic to aquatic life… with long lasting effects” sold under a variety of brand names including Lava 800 and Limpopo SC.
  • More than 160,000 kilograms of potassium hydroxide and 100,000 kilograms of ammonia hydroxide, both intermediate products used in manufacturing, are “extremely caustic” chemicals that burn skin on contact.
  • More than 3,000 kilograms of Cyprex, a “highly active herbicide” containing halosulfuron-methyl, a product that “may damage the unborn child”, according to the European Chemicals Agency.
  • More than 500,000 litres of Triclon, a product containing triclopyr butotyl and classified as “flammable, harmful and environmentally hazardous” and that “may cause lung damage if swallowed”.
  • More than 30,000 litres of MSMA 720, also known as monosodium methyl arsonate, which has been shown to have “limited evidence of a carcinogenic effect”, and over time converts to inorganic arsenic in soil with the potential to contaminate water sources.
  • More than 30,000 kilograms of oxamyl-based insecticides, including products Bandito and Oxadate, that also present “high risk for all life forms”.
  • Almost 11,000 kilograms of Tenazole, containing the “extremely flammable” fungicide tebuconazole.
  • More than 1,000 litres of Colloso, a fungicide containing the active ingredient carbendazim, which “may cause heritable genetic damage”, “may impair fertility” and “may cause harm to unborn child”.

These are just 13 of the chemicals on UPL’s inventory: there are over 700 line items on the list, including insecticides, herbicides, fungicides and rodenticides. 

Many chemicals might have been destroyed by the flames but much was blown over the area in a foul plume or washed downstream by the runoff from fighting the fire. 

The warehouse had no environmental permits, had not been through a formal risk assessment, nor had relevant authorities, such as the fire brigade, been warned about its contents.

UPL did not respond to our detailed questions. Instead, its public relations firm referred us to the holding statement UPL has used since 24 July: 

“We apologise that our client is unable to provide you with a detailed response at this time. Their immediate efforts… have been directed at extinguishing the fire, containing the escape of product from the facility property, and dealing with the many tasks associated with those activities. 

“It is a mammoth exercise involving numerous authorities, consultants and contractors, all co-ordinated by their small team.

“As they deal with this they are endeavouring to communicate essential information to the public, authorities and others.”

Clean-up teams with respirators and chemical-resistant PPE wade through the toxic soup of chemicals left behind from the fire and fire-fighting efforts. (Photo: Mlungisi Mbele)

Week 1: Avoiding responsibility

UPL, formerly known as United Phosphorus Limited, is one of the largest agrochemical companies in the world. Listed on two stock exchanges in India, it has an annual turnover of $5.4-billion (R80-billion). 

For the year ending 30 March 2020, UPL’s South African subsidiary had annual revenue of R2-billion and countrywide inventories worth R480-million, giving some indication of the scale of what was stored in the Durban warehouse.

Whether UPL’s warehouse was intentionally sabotaged or a casualty of the looting of the Makro next door is unclear. But at around 2am on Tuesday 13 July, a fireball exploded, ripping the roof off the warehouse and, with it, the sprinkler system.

This created two problems: toxic smoke from the fire, and a chemical soup as water used to fight the fire flowed down the hill, into a wetland and into the Ohlanga river. 

In the days that followed, journalists, NGOs and researchers called on the company to release a list of the chemicals stored in the warehouse. 

Begrudgingly, UPL responded on Saturday 17 July, but would only say that its warehouse contained “a substantial quantity of crop solution products”. 

“[I]t’s not clear at this stage what the burning of those products may have released into the environment. Testing underway will confirm this as soon as possible,” a public relations firm appointed by UPL told amaBhungane.

By this point, the fire had been burning for more than four days and the eThekwini municipality had closed northern beaches after field rangers noticed that the Ohlanga river and the Umhlanga lagoon had turned an eerie bright blue. 

UPL likely knew that it was responsible: it is understood the warehouse contained more than 15,000kg of blue dye, a colourant that is often added to herbicides to help farmers identify which areas have been sprayed. 

But in its press release, UPL avoided taking responsibility: “It is not known at this stage what proportion of any pollution may be from the warehouse or other sources,” it said.

It added that samples were being taken from the river and lagoon “to determine if there has been any contamination”.

By Monday 19 July, a week after the fire started, UPL was forced to admit it was likely responsible for the choking fumes emanating from the warehouse and the contaminated water flowing down the river. 

The warehouse contained bio-stimulants and foliar feeds which “do not represent a health concern”, it said in an updated press release.

“There were also 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.”

Some herbicides and insecticides, however, “may not have burned out completely”, it added, without elaborating. 

Amongst the seven it identified by name was alpha-cypermethrin, an insecticide classified as “very toxic to aquatic life”, “toxic if swallowed”, and “may cause damage to organs through prolonged or repeated exposure”, according to the European Chemical Agency.

Despite this, UPL said it had consulted with toxicologist Dr Gerhard Verdoorn: “He was provided with a list of the crop solution products stored in the warehouse… In his view, there is a minimal risk of any long-term effects to the health of people exposed to smoke from the warehouse. 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.”

This press release, one week after the fire started, would be the last time UPL would publicly disclose any of the chemicals stored in its warehouse. 

Clean-up crews have been working on the site from day one, while residents wait for test results from UK laboratories. (Photo: Mlungisi Mbele)

Week 2: Burying the list

On Tuesday 20 July, KwaZulu-Natal’s Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs department (KZN EDTEA) sent UPL a pre-directive, instructing the company to, amongst other things, start preparing an inventory of all the products stored in its warehouse at the time of the fire.

“The department was informed that the warehouse had housed more than 1,600 different agricultural products, specifically insecticides/pesticides and that a full list together with the [Material Safety Data Sheets] will be provided to the department officials,” the letter read, warning that if a final directive was issued, UPL would have seven days to hand over the list.

The actual number of chemicals on the list is smaller: the 1,600 items include labels and packaging; an insecticide that comes in five-litre and 20-litre containers appears as two line items. 

But UPL did not come clean with this list immediately.

Instead, UPL would hand over a much shorter and less detailed list – the same one it had provided to Verdoorn, which had solicited the “minimal risk” assessment. 

The list Verdoorn had been provided with did not, in fact, contain a comprehensive inventory of all the products stored in UPL’s warehouse. Instead, it contained descriptions of around 350 different chemical formulations. 

For instance, a herbicide described as an “acetochlor and atrazine and terbuthylazine formulated product” was likely a reference to Acetochlor TA 500, the only product UPL sells that contains those three active ingredients. 

According to UPL’s list, this product was described as a “mild irritant” with “low acute toxicity” for humans. While Acetochlor TA 500 does have these characteristics, it also has other, more sinister ones.

One of its active ingredients, acetochlor, shows “positive evidence of mutagenicity”, i.e. the ability to permanently damage DNA; the US Environmental Protection Agency classifies acetochlor as “a probable human carcinogen”.

This information is spelled out in Acetochlor TA 500’s safety data sheet (previously called a material safety data sheet). Every chemical product must, by law, have this publicly available document setting out the hazards of the product and its active ingredients. This includes information on what to do if someone swallows the product, how to fight a fire involving the product, and its various classifications and codes for transporting the product.

The problem with UPL’s list is that it made identifying the chemical products and their risks a painstakingly slow process for anyone who is not a toxicologist well-versed in crop protection products. The list also gave no indication of the volumes of each product that was stored.

Asked about the list, Verdoorn told us: “I was given [the list] and I only refined and corrected it… My position was that there was no deadly danger for humans. Even the smoke had blown away in the other direction.”

A week later, KZN EDTEA sent UPL an updated pre-directive: in addition to the inventory, UPL would be required to “list all dangerous goods that were stored on site”, including “the relevant quantities in cubic metres (m3)”.

UPL would eventually provide that list with the 700+ line items of chemical products, but only to officials who, for reasons yet to be explained, have refused to make the list public.

Week 4: ‘I get chills when I hear methomyl’

Last week, parliament’s portfolio committee on the environment flew to Durban to inspect the burned-out UPL warehouse and to hold public hearings on the disaster.

“Why is there a cloud of secrecy that surrounds exactly how much and what was in that warehouse?” Heinz de Boer, a Democratic Alliance MPL, demanded to know.  

“We want to know as the community, we want to know as elected representatives of the community exactly, an inventory – what chemicals, what pesticides, what toxins were in that warehouse? How much of each? And what is the potential impact on the communities and the wildlife around this area?”

When Verdoorn, UPL’s own toxicologist, stood up to testify, he provided a far more damning picture than the “minimal risk” remarks that UPL attributed to him in their early press release.

Asked to rate the seriousness of the hazard, he said: “At the time of the incident… the site, obviously, a 10 out of 10… The water coming off the site a 9, the sediments on the site a 9 to 10, the air around and up on the site at the time of the incident and two days after that would have been a 9 to 10, and then the river system, anything from a 3 to a 7 [out of 10].”

Verdoorn told MPs that during the first few days of the fire, he got 31 calls from concerned members of the public, “mostly about nasal irritations and eye irritations”.

Now, a month after the fire, Verdoorn says the warehouse site is at “the level of at least 7” out of 10, sediment in the river: 7 out of 10, and places down river “below 7”, while air pollution from the warehouse has dropped to a 1 out of 10. 

“The risk is in the ground and the water… we worked on probabilities,” he told us when we called him last week.

“We are still waiting on tests. There are things I know for sure we’ll find and things I doubt we’ll find. You could say we have qualitative information but not quantitative information.”

“There are products I am concerned about, especially the possible combination effect. This means that one product may have an effect of 2 and another have an effect of 3, but if you combine them the effect is not 5, but 8,” Verdoorn said.

He added: “I take comfort in the fact that there have been no hospitalisations.”

We asked Verdoorn which chemicals on UPL’s inventory would be really dangerous, then volunteered a UPL product like MASTA 900, made from the chemical methomyl.

“Methomyl is precisely what I was thinking of. I get chills when I hear methomyl [but] it decomposes quickly… 24 hours or so. In a fire it can be almost instantaneous,” he said.

“Paraquat is another one – fortunately it decomposes in water within three days and gets captured in sediment.”

This, seemingly, is the gamble UPL is willing to take: that the thousands of tons of toxic chemicals contained in its warehouse were mostly vaporised in the initial fireball that blew the roof off their warehouse. 

But which ones survived and were washed down the river, or fell, days later, as an acrid-smelling rain? The test results, we are told, are still coming. DM/OBP

Absa OBP

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    Sluggish/ resistant responses are themselves grounds for litigation against the company. I’m amazed state authorities aren’t chomping at the bit to lay blame. Do I smell a rat?

    • Peter Worman says:

      I most certainly do. How did this project even get off the ground without the required EIA’s firstly, secondly why so close to residential buildings, thirdly it seems no bund walls or other suitable means of containment of chemical leaks. A bit like building a chemical processing plant on the beachfront next to a hospital. The rat I smell is government collusion and kow-towing to our Chinese masters

  • Colette Hinton says:

    Crucify them! Sue them for billions. Find out who in the KZN EDTEA gave permission for such a toxic business to set up in an area that is earmarked for affordable housing and sue them too. Find out which company was employed to do the Environmental Impact Assessment and sue them too. This whole situation is a national disgrace.

    • Moraig Peden says:

      In addition to this shocking neglect of correct procedures- this is a reminder that these toxic chemicals are continuously being applied to the environment by farmers. Poor earth, poor us. There must be a better way to produce food.

  • Luan Sml says:

    This excerpt from the article is truly shocking “ The warehouse had no environmental permits, had not been through a formal risk assessment, nor had relevant authorities, such as the fire brigade, been warned about its contents.” Is this how a giant multinational should be allowed to operate…?

    • Gerrie Pretorius Pretorius says:

      Only if they in one way or another support the anc? Ask the guptas …

    • Rod H MacLeod says:

      Of course not – but these MNCs all play the brown envelope game – it takes two to tango in any bribery scandal – and I’m afraid, knowing the Kwa-Zulu provincial government for what it is, you will find a slithering nest of vipers under this UPL site. And that is why the central government is sh!%%ing itself.

  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    The biggest crime is that there was no contingency plan. Big fines will teach the company and others that South Africa is not a S…hole African country but still a player when it comes to keeping its citizens safe and not putting profit before lives. A fine ( and possible court case) will reveal players who might be involved in letting a company like this operate without proper procedures in place for a “fee”. The minister of the Environment ( the only white person in CR’s cabinet) can get her teeth stuck into this and expose the realities of what we are dealing with when it comes to countries like India, Turkey or China investing in dubious anti-eco projects in our country. These projects must be given full due diligence before being allowed to proceed – the corrupted “powerships” deal could be the next eco-disaster in our country. We need heed the warning this particular disaster presents.

  • Brian Cotter says:

    This is an international environmental disaster and should be spread around the world. After the Beirut port blast a year ago this is smaller but nevertheless equally important for us due to it potentially being a treasonous sabotage, a warehouse close to housing, and also corruption for how this plant got approved to be there in the first place. I remember Trafigura dumping toxic waste in Abidjan in 2006 and remember how the international companies use corruption especially in Africa to get what they want. The Minister of the Environment is where the book stops and every confidence in her to get to the bottom of it, without external influences for the technical side and Minister of Police for the sabotage.

  • Gerhard Pretorius says:

    Fast-tracking the economy appears to create some colateral damage, not that the benefactors really care as long as the money keeps rolling in.

  • William Kelly says:

    And yet we cannot import a fish without two tons of paperwork. Another example of bureaucracy gone wild – legislation up the wazoo and about as useful as toilet paper because not even the bare bone basics can be administered. Best option, sue everyone for dereliction of duty, damages and class actions – they have billions that can and should be taken from them.

  • Helen Swingler says:

    They should have no choice in the matter of disclosure. We are talking about lives and long-term health as well as serious environmental damage. There are massive long-term problems here. I agree that it’s a national disgrace. For too long now too many giant multinationals have been able to skirt their giant, multinational responsibilities. Keep digging amaBhungane. This cannot be allowed to die quietly.

  • Sandra Goldberg says:

    What an absolutely shocking story! Huge questions to be asked- how it it possible with all the red tape that small businesses have to endure, or even private persons to get anything “official”done, a huge company like this doesn’t seem to have had any problems! The company directors ,as well as the governmental officials who must have allowed this disaster waiting to happen, must be investigated by top level private forensics and held to account with huge fines and even imprisonment if need be

  • J LOMBARD says:

    “Whether UPL’s warehouse was intentionally sabotaged or a casualty of the looting of the Makro next door is unclear.” This is grist to the mill for conspiracy theorists. Did the master brain behind the Zulu Uprising know that the chemical stockpile was Durban’s Achilles Heel? If so, they may argue, it is yet another instance that points to a meticulously planned campaign by a level of intellect not generally available locally.

    • ethne starke says:

      I suspect that those behind the Zulu uprising knew exactly what was in that warehouse. Some of their people probably work there.

    • Jane Crankshaw says:

      I agree with your suspicions – the planning of the riots and the targeted multinationals disclose a mastermind that is just too sophisticated to be local. Russia springs to mind – just can’t work out what they want in return from the Zuma faction of the ANC?

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