The news: A toxic gas leak was reported in Karachi’s Keamari area on February 16. It has left 14 dead, with over 500 others still admitted in hospitals. Most of the people affected belong to Railway Colony in Keamari, which is adjacent to the Shell lubricants oil blending plant. The government formed an investigation committee, but nothing conclusive has been announced.
Soybean suspected: On Feb 18, the University of Karachi’s International Centre for Chemical and Biological Sciences (ICCBS) wrote a letter to the Karachi commissioner reporting that a soybean container docked at the Keamari Port was the likely cause. The symptoms among the affected residents seem to be caused by exposure to soybean dust. The Sindh Health Department shared autopsy reports of the 14 casualties and endorsed that the deaths and illnesses were caused by soybean allergens.
Denial: Over a hundred patients were brought to Ziauddin Hospital in two days. Due to toxicity, the hospital staff was also affected and fell sick, a doctor who has been treating the gas leak patients reported. Contrary to the claim of government, she said that the symptoms seem to be nothing that would be caused by soybean exposure. Meanwhile, the Karachi Port Trust Chairperson Rear Admiral (retd) Jamil Akhtar denied claims that a toxic gas or soybean dust had spread from a container at the Keamari Port. If that had been the case, the port workers would be the first to experience these symptoms not the residents, he argued. Another KPT official pointed towards the abundant oil refineries present in the Keamari area.
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Possible causes: Some officials claim that Hydrogen Sulphide, a highly poisonous by-product of crude oil, might be at the root of these symptoms. Advisor on Environment Barrister Murtaza Wahab reported that the government has summoned officials of the crude oil companies located in the Keamari area. Some doctors say the illness might be caused by inhalation of Methyl Bromide, a toxic pesticide gas used to fumigate containers at the port. A navy engineer explained that all containers at the port are cleaned with certain chemicals, which are then disposed of by the port authorities. He suspected that some of this residue was drained into the sewage lines, which already contain chemical gasses. The chemicals reacted and formed a toxic gas which then affected the Keamari residents.
Government action: On Monday, the Sindh High Court sought replies from the federal and Sindh governments over the leak. The government claims that the situation has been controlled, reports of illness have decreased and those with symptoms have been treated and discharged. Many residents and officials complained that no concrete measures were taken to ensure the safety of affected people or the mourning families and no systems are in place to cater to health-related emergencies in the country. Sindh Information Minister Nasir Shah denied these allegations saying, “SOPs are present. That’s why all institutes coordinated and worked together for relief work”. The health department has advised residents to wear masks and keep their doors and windows closed.