UPL chemical catastrophe: Durban residents kept in the dark about the dangers on their doorstep
Test results have finally confirmed that pesticides – including known carcinogens – poisoned rivers, soil and beaches in Durban. Provincial authorities say they have opened a criminal case against agrochemical giant UPL, but for residents who were exposed to toxic fumes and contaminated water, there is a growing fear of the unknown long-term health effects.
Karinda Jagmohan was one of the first journalists to arrive at the scene of the UPL warehouse fire.
When she got there, mid-morning on Tuesday, 13 July, the fire had already been burning for 12 hours. But no one tried to stop Jagmohan and her cameraman, Philani Zuma, from approaching the building.
“It was surprisingly easy to gain access to the warehouse,” Jagmohan told us. “Apart from the chaos around Queen Nandi Drive, the other stretches on the N2 highway between Durban and Umhlanga were eerily quiet… There was an unmarked police vehicle at the gate, we greeted the police officers who didn’t stop us as we walked in.”
Nearby, paramedics were assessing the body of a man who had been killed, supposedly trampled in the unrest the night before. He died, Jagmohan recalled, “with a rock in his hand”.
A chemical plant in Cornubia is engulfed in flames. The smell of chemicals fill the air, and the building is falling apart. Officials say it will take two weeks to douse flames completely #looting @Newzroom405 pic.twitter.com/pPMIaoXpdg
— Karinda Jagmohan (@Karinda_J) July 13, 2021
In the footage you can see black liquid running out of the gate of the UPL warehouse. Firefighters had warned the two Newzroom Afrika journalists that the thick, oily liquid would damage their shoes if they stepped in it, and to walk on the grass as they approached.
“There was grey/black smoke billowing from the [warehouse]… As we walked closer the chemical smell grew stronger – almost like a strong mix of detergents,” Jagmohan recalled.
While firefighters were equipped with respirator masks, the journalists only had ordinary cloth masks: “[W]e both started feeling light-headed. My eyes were burning and my throat was dry… you could feel you were breathing in toxins.”
What neither knew was that they were standing at ground zero of a full-blown chemical disaster.
It has been more than two months since the UPL warehouse was set alight, blanketing neighbourhoods in Durban in choking chemical fumes, poisoning a river and closing 40km of beaches.
The warehouse in Cornubia was targeted on the night of 12 July, as part of the widespread unrest in KwaZulu-Natal.
In April, the agro-chemical giant UPL moved into a newly-built warehouse in Cornubia. Three months later, half the warehouse was destroyed during widespread unrest in the province. UPL believes that the building, which contained millions of litres of pesticides, was intentionally targeted.
Yet in the past two months residents have struggled to get answers about the chemical disaster unfolding on their doorstep. Many are wondering if they have been exposed to toxic chemicals and will wake up years from now with cancer courtesy of UPL. Others – who rely on farming, fishing and tourism – are wondering if their livelihoods will ever recover.
Those who live alongside the river in Blackburn Village – and who bore the brunt of the fire’s toxic fumes – have had little more to go on than signs erected by clean-up crews in hazmat gear, warning that “dangerous chemicals” spilled into the river which “may be toxic and dangerous to humans”.
Two weeks ago, provincial authorities finally agreed to release the test results of samples taken in the days and weeks following the fire.
The results – available on amaBhungane’s website – show that, among other things, high levels of arsenic (a known carcinogen), atrazine (a herbicide banned in many countries) and bromoxynil (a herbicide that could cause birth defects) were found in soil samples taken just 500m from Blackburn Village.
It is tempting to think that no one could plan for a disaster like this, and that UPL and the city did the best they could under extraordinary circumstances.
In fact, every city plans for disasters like the one that hit the UPL warehouse on the night of 12 July. For instance, eThekwini Municipality has a 22-page plan that spells out what should happen in the event of a chemical incident in the refinery-rich South Durban area.
The plan – the “Off-site Emergency Plan for the South Durban Basin” – includes a pre-prepared script for evacuation and shelter-in-place orders as well as contact details for radio and TV stations that should be contacted to broadcast the emergency message.
But no plan existed for the UPL warehouse, in part because the city was kept in the dark about what was stored in the warehouse. And as a result, no emergency broadcast went out on 12 July to warn the residents of Blackburn Village, Izinga, Umhlanga, Mount Edgecombe, Prestondale or Phoenix that a plume of contaminated smoke was heading their way.
The smell of sulphur
Kwanele Msizazwe, a local community leader, had woken up on Tuesday, 13 July to a strong north wind carrying smoke from the UPL fire across Blackburn Village where he lives.
This informal settlement lies just more than 1km north of the warehouse. Its roughly 7,000 residents were directly in the path of the chemical plume escaping from the warehouse on 12 July. But the pungent smell, alerting them to the danger, did not arrive until a day later.
“The fire started in the evening, the following day we started to smell that smoke [and realised] it’s not normal… If you have ever been there when tyres are burning, it smells like that,” he told amaBhungane.
“You can’t tolerate it when you are outside,” he said. “[Y]our chest will be dry, your nose is very dry, even when you are trying to talk, it’s like there’s something in your throat. It feels like you’re choking.”
Wendy Kuthala Mantwa, another resident of Blackburn Village, confirmed this. “It was choking. You would cough and cough until you throw up,” she told us.
Two kilometers south east of the UPL warehouse, in Umhlanga Ridge, Lyndall Valentine was experiencing similar symptoms: “The smell of chemicals was so intense that even with all my doors and windows closed, I literally felt like I was choking. I couldn’t stop coughing and I could literally taste a chemical taste in my mouth,” she told a parliamentary portfolio committee last month.
Over the next few days her symptoms got worse: “I had a rash all over my face, vomiting, headache, nausea, my throat was swollen.”
Concerned, she had two Covid-19 tests but both came back negative.
In Prestondale, Anton Muller and Angelo Tselentis had had a bird’s eye view of UPL fire as they did night patrols on the Cornubia bridge to prevent further arson and looting.
“The smell was so unbearable, especially when the wind changed direction, that our eyes and throats were burning, but we stood there to do what we had to do. On the one night that we were standing on the bridge on guard, we could not see 2m in front of us. It was like being in a mist, in a fog,” Tselentis wrote in a letter, which Muller read out at a recent public meeting at Reddam school.
The meeting was organised by the UPL Cornubia Fire Civil Society Action Group which has brought civil society and residents together under one roof.
Muller himself added: “We were praying for the wind to change direction so that we could breathe. And then we realised, as the wind was changing direction it was going to another community that we knew very well.”
Nicole Bollman is the ward councillor for both Umhlanga and Blackburn Village: “Initially it smelled like Guy Fawkes, like sulphur,” she told us. “That’s what it sort of smelled like in the beginning and then it became sickening, like nausea. It sort of hit the back of your palate and sinuses.”
“As soon as the smoke started hitting, that’s when the question started getting asked: what was in there?”
UPL had in fact sent out a warning on the first day of the fire, but it failed to answer the burning question: what chemicals were in the choking fumes?
Instead, the message said that “a warehouse that was storing chemicals” had been set alight: “As a precautionary measure people should remain inside if they’re in the area of the smoke cloud. People are also advised to cover their eyes and nose by wearing an ordinary mask and glasses over their eyes,” it read.
The message was intended for the “general Cornubia/Umhlanga community”, but the distribution list was limited and failed, from what we can tell, to reach most residents.
UPL would eventually upgrade its advisory to warn that “people with asthmatic conditions and very young infants” should “avoid the immediate surroundings of the Cornubia warehouse”. But still the company stubbornly refused to release a full inventory of products that had been stored in the warehouse.
By comparison, when the nearby Digistics warehouse in Cornubia became concerned that it could be targeted in the unrest, it issued a pre-emptive statement to neighbours and the fire department, explaining that it had 2,500kg of potentially explosive anhydrous ammonia on site and that it may be necessary to order an evacuation if the Digistics warehouse was targeted.
UPL was storing 26,000kg of Masta 900 – an insecticide containing the “very potent neurotoxin” methomyl, which can be fatal if inhaled and produces “very toxic fumes” when burned – yet UPL warned no one, even after the warehouse was set alight.
Firefighters who spent 10 days extinguishing the fire had no idea that methomyl was present.
UPL did not respond to our questions but issued a public statement last month saying that “expense or expertise is being spared” in the clean-up operation.
- UPL’s full statement is available on its website.
A hazardous shade of turquoise
What did not become apparent until the third day was that a large amount of water had escaped from the warehouse and was now carrying a toxic chemical soup down a wetland and towards the Ohlanga River.
That warning would only arrive when the river turned a hazardous shade of turquoise and clean-up crews in hazmat suits turned up to inspect the river.
“[W]e noticed the water had changed and the colour was now green,” Kuthala Mantwa told us. “We didn’t know what was happening until we saw the warnings and the [clean-up crews] checking the place.”
Downstream, dead fish were washing up on banks of the Umhlanga lagoon and dead crayfish littered Umhlanga beach.
- Read Daily Maverick’s report: Fish and marine creatures in mass die-off after arson attacks on KZN chemical plants
Desmond D’Sa is a well-known environmental activist from the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA). When he heard reports on dead fish, he came to investigate.
“My heart was sore when I saw those dead fish, small babies all killed,” he said during the recent public meeting. “[W]e’ve been fighting for the protection of the fish in Durban, and ensuring that the nurseries are protected… But this was taken away with one fire. Doof! Gone.”
Clean-up crews would eventually collect three-and-a-half tons of dead fish and crustaceans from the lagoon and beaches.
But what stung D’Sa was that there was no warning: “Nobody came out in the first few days to notify the public. Not the company, not those responsible at local government level.”
The city finally steps in
In the midst of the chaos caused by the unrest, it would take several days for the eThekwini municipality to step in.
“The Municipality was not aware of the contents of the warehouse prior to the incident so the fish kill and complaints of the air pollution were surprising and of concern to the city once they determined that the smoke cloud had irritants in it,” a spokesperson told us. “Media releases were issued as soon as this became apparent.”
This was, however, only after reports of dead fish started surfacing on social media on 15 July.
On Friday, 16 July, almost four days after the fire began, the City issued a public alert, closing the beaches of Virginia, Beachwood, Glenashley, La Lucia, Umhlanga Main and Bronze, Umdloti, La Mercy and Tongaat beaches, “as a precautionary measure”.
“The pollution is considered serious and can affect one’s health if species are collected and consumed. Lagoon and seawater contact must be avoided,” it warned.
That weekend, posters started appearing along the beaches and in Blackburn Village: “The water in the river is polluted by these chemicals and may be toxic and dangerous to humans,” a poster in isiZulu warned.
Another warned of “reported fish and crustacean kills” at uMhlanga and uMdhloti lagoons: “While the exact cause of this remains unknown, it is considered serious and can affect one’s health if collected and consumed.”
No risk to public health
Although clean-up crews hired by UPL had been on site all week, UPL was still maintaining that it might not be responsible for the chemical disaster unfolding in north Durban.
On Saturday, 17 July, Ravi Pillay, the MEC for economic affairs, tourism and the environment, conducted an inspection of the still-smoldering UPL warehouse.
Speaking to the media afterwards, he said: “[UPL] are quite emphatic they are not the cause of the smell, but of course we are doing tests and analysis and we will get the results next week.
“We don’t think that there’s any risk to public health, but we assess that there’s some risk to marine health… The company doesn’t want to concede at this point that that’s what caused a little bit of marine life death.”
A few days later, UPL reassured the public that its own toxicologist had looked at the list of chemicals and concluded “there is a minimal risk of any long-terms effects to the health of people exposed to smoke from the warehouse”, while still refusing to disclose a full list of what was stored in there.
The government’s own task team would not be provided with a full inventory until three weeks after the fire.
When that inventory finally leaked to the public, residents and watchdog groups were furious.
- The warehouse contained roughly 2.5 million litres of pesticides and another 3.8 million kgs in solid form, according to the leaked inventory published by amaBhungane: Here’s the full inventory of chemicals in the destroyed Cornubia warehouse
“[W]hat should have been a concerted collective public health effort right from the onset was delayed by at least a week until information started trickling through,” Rico Euripidou, a public health expert with the non-profit groundWork, said during the public meeting.
“And then when that information did start trickling through … the public health advice coming from UPL and from the government was inconsistent with the risk of what was in that warehouse.”
When the test results finally arrived a month later, it was clear that there was a very real risk to public health.
What is lurking in the water?
The warehouse that housed UPL was built on a hill, just above a wetland. The wetland feeds a small stream which, 2.5km later, empties into the Ohlanga River as it runs past Blackburn Village.
WS2, where the second water sample was collected, is in a small bend in the stream, roughly 600m from the warehouse. SS3, where the third soil sample was collected, is further from the warehouse (900m) but closer to Blackburn Village (500m).
These two sites were two of the more contaminated in the initial tests taken on Monday 19 July.
At WS2, tests found high levels of arsenic in the water: at 567 ppm, more than 4 000 times the limit of 0.12 ppm, which is the recommended maximum for recreational water use, according to Element Material Technology, the laboratory which conducted the tests.
At SS3, tests found high levels of both arsenic and chloroform in the soil. The latter – which is classified as a suspected carcinogen and “suspected of damaging the unborn child” – should be present at no more than 0.11 ppm; tests found 20 ppm.
Other, unexplained compounds were also found at these sites.
Tests at WS2 found 950 times the recommended limit of 1,2,4-trimethylbenzene, a common solvent that is classified as “toxic to aquatic life with long lasting effects” and which causes “serious eye irritation” and is “harmful if inhaled”.
Soil samples from SS3 found 130 ppm of naphthalene, a hydrocarbon “suspected of causing cancer”. The legal limit is 28.
A second batch of tests, conducted at the end of July, looked for a wider range of chemical compounds. Levels of arsenic had seemingly declined, but bromoxynil, a herbicide known to cause birth defects in lab rats, was found in almost all soil samples that were taken two weeks after the fire began.
Are we safe?
But what do the results actually tell us about the risks to public health?
Samples of beach sand – collected from the shuttered Umhlanga beach two weeks after the fire – contained low levels of arsenic but within the legal limit, leading UPL’s toxicologist, Dr Gerard Verdoorn, to conclude that “a person will have to ingest… 2,400kg of beach sand” to reach a lethal dose of MSMA, the UPL herbicide that contains an organic form of arsenic. “This is an impossible scenario,” he concluded.
- Another group of environmental experts hired by UPL disagreed with Verdoorn’s assessment that this meant the beaches were safe. For more, read UPL disaster: Initial tests found high levels of arsenic from Durban’s chemical spill.
But as one moves back upstream, the concentration of chemicals becomes much more dangerous.
Roughly a quarter of one soil sample, collected 600m from the UPL warehouse, was made up of the herbicide picloram (235g/kg), but the average-sized adult would still need to ingest 3.2kg of contaminated soil to get a lethal dose. (Picloram is classified as “harmful”.)
The same soil sample also contained bromoxynil (37.6g/kg), a herbicide classified as “toxic”. Around 14.4g of pure bromoxynil would be enough to kill an average-sized adult, according to our calculations.
But there is a large gap between a dose that will kill you and the low concentrations that are considered safe enough to use on crops, albeit with care over handling and chronic exposure.
The UPL test results suggest chemical contamination that falls somewhere in between. Not enough to kill you with a single dose, but enough to immediately make you sick? Definitely. And enough to cause long-term health effects? Maybe.
For instance, when bromoxynil-based products are sprayed on crops it is diluted so that no more than two litres of the herbicide is sprayed over a hectare. Even then, UPL recommends that you wait two days before re-entering the sprayed area (unless you are wearing protective gear), and should wait up to 40 days before allowing animals to graze in those areas.
The UPL warehouse contained 17,000 litres of bromoxynil-based products and another 26,000kg of raw product, according to the leaked inventory. We still do not know how much of that was burned up in the warehouse fire, how much was carried off in the smoke and how much poured down the wetland and into the Ohlanga River.
All we know from the tests is that two weeks after the fire, soil collected 600m away from the warehouse contained 37,632mg/kg of bromoxynil.
In lab tests, a 35mg dose of bromoxynil (per kg of body mass) was enough to trigger birth defects in rats and rabbits. Using Verdoorn’s formula, one handful of soil from this contaminated site could in theory contain enough bromoxynil to pose a similar risk to pregnant mothers.
But to know who has been exposed and to what extent requires a more complex modelling exercise, which means more waiting.
“The thing that we are most concerned about are things like pregnancy outcomes, like neurological effects in children,” Euripidou from groundWork said during the public meeting earlier this month. “And not just in the acute phase when the fire was burning and they were exposed to smoke, but also in the longer term in the chronic phase.”
At the meeting Euripidou slammed the government for failing to set up a health surveillance system as the chemical disaster unfolded, calling it “a public health failure”.
“[W]hen people were experiencing what are called the acute impacts – the skin irritation, the throat irritation, the eyes – as part of your surveillance system… you would begin to think about what kind of chemical metabolites in the body that you would want to test.”
“It’s also part of a process called ground truthing,” he explained. “You have to record where the complaints are coming from and you have to map them.”
That data can then be used to test the accuracy of the models.
“If we rely solely on models to tell us what happened, we are going to fool ourselves and we’re not going to understand and record the full extent of this,” he warned.
When will life return to normal?
Monitors from both the municipality and ULP have started conducting health surveys with residents affected by the fire, and UPL’s clean-up crews are continuing to remove contaminated water and soil from the area.
That contaminated waste – up to 5,000 kilolitres of contaminated water, 800 tons of solid waste, 100 tons of contaminated steel and 150 tons of contaminated concrete – will go to high hazardous waste dumps in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.
But provincial authorities say it is likely to take years to rehabilitate the Ohlanga River and the Umhlanga lagoon. And waiting without answers brings heartbreak.
“There were three guys in Blackburn Village who were doing fishing… For them it was a business… they used to go there at night with 20-litre buckets, when they come back in the mornings, those 20-litre buckets will be full of fish, then they will go out and sell those fish… They’re still not working… It’s very difficult for them to survive,” community leader Msizazwe said during the public meeting.
He continued: “There are guys with vegetable gardens there. One of them… is nearby that river, and I saw his veggies changing colour. Everyone knows that your spinach supposed to be green… Now it’s changing colour to be brown.
Roughly 2.5km away from the warehouse, the contaminated stream empties into the Ohlanga river as it flows past Blackburn Village. In June, this area was lush and green. Ten days after the fire, the vegetation had turned brown.
“Even the leaves of trees that are nearby that river are also like that. The colour of the sand is changing to black.” DM/OBP
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