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February 19, 2020

‘Suspected gas leaked from docked ship’: 14 perish in Keamari, other localities also affected

Top Story

February 19, 2020

KARACHI: Dozens of people suffering from asphyxiation continued to pour into several hospitals on Tuesday as confusion prevailed about the source and nature of the lethal gas poisoning in Keamari's Railway Colony area, adjacent to the Karachi Port, as five more people succumbed to inhalation of toxic air at various city hospitals, raising the death toll to 14 on Tuesday. 

Over 500 people were affected, the Sindh health department confirmed. Dozens of sick were still being treated at various public and private hospitals in the city due to toxic gas inhalation and what is now being believed as the outcome of a soybean dust allergy.

The episode caused widespread alarm and panic among residents of Railway Colony, Jackson Market, Massan Chowk and the allergen along with the noxious smell spread to different other areas to the changing wind direction. The smell also spread to Clifton, Defence, Bath Island, M T Khan Road where all the schools in the area were closed. This prompted scores to evacuate and many had to wear masks as some kind of protection. The widespread scare hurt the business in this economic-commercial hub when parts of it were shut down. Thin attendance was also observed in offices. Prime Minister's Adviser on Science and Technology Dr Ataur Rehman said the severe sickness was caused by ‘Soybean Dust’ that had dispersed while offloading the consignment from a docked ship.

Earlier, on Tuesday, often conflicting reports surfaced from different research centres about the specific agent behind the tragedy, only to confound things further and multiply the agony of those living in the vicinity and severely restricting the treatment options.

PM's Adviser on Science and Technology, Dr Ataur Rehman told The Geo News programme, "Aaj Shahzeb Khanzada Key Saath" that the deaths were most likely caused by soybean dust that contains potentially lethal allergens. Globally, soybean is one of the eight food items that cause serious, sometimes lethal, allergy. Dr Rehman was of the viewpoint that the required safeguards were not there during the unloading process of the consignment at the port. He said the ship carrying the consignment must be kept at the outer anchorage.

A report came from the forensic science laboratory at the ICCBS, University of Karachi, that claimed that soybean or soy dust allergy could be the most likely cause of the deadly incident in Keamari, saying blood and urine samples of the patients indicated that they had serious allergic reactions due to soy dust allergy which spread from a vessel docked at the Karachi Port and contained hundreds of tons of soybean. The initial ICCBS report was also sent to Commissioner Karachi Iftikhar Shalwani who said samples of blood and urine of affected people revealed that soybean dust could be the likely cause of the deadly incident. Director ICCBS Dr. Iqbal Chaudhry said they were analyzing over two dozen samples of the affected people and added that the final report by the ICCBS would be presented to the authorities.

Following the death of a large number of people in the area, the residents of Keamari protested on the main road leading to the Karachi Port and blocked traffic. They raised slogans and demanded the federal and provincial governments to investigate the incident, provide them protection from environmental pollution and hazardous materials and ensure safety measures at the port.

The environmental agencies, including Sindh Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA), and officials from the forensic science laboratory at the International Center for Chemical and Biological Sciences (ICCBS) of the University of Karachi differed on the source of toxin. The SEPA officials insisted that it was Hydrogen Sulfide (H2S) gas emitted from the oil installations at the Karachi Port, leading to large-scale tragedy. The forensic science lab experts of the University of Karachi’s ICCBS claimed that ‘Soy Dust’ from a vessel docked at the Karachi Port, which brought hundreds of tons of soybean, was the source of lethal allergy that resulted in immediate deaths and causing immense hardship and despair to a large number of people, saying they analyzed the blood and urine samples of patients and located the allergen that could be the cause of deaths and misery.

The third version came from the Chemical Science Laboratory of the Sindh government and officials of Karachi Port Trust (KPT), which claimed that a deadly gas, Methyl Bromide (Ch3Br) used for fumigation of large vessels at ports, was the likely cause of deadly poisoning. The firm contracted to fumigate used clothes used "the lethal gas inappropriately and without supervision" at the Pakistan International Container Terminal (PICT), leading to gas poisoning in the port and surrounding area.

The Sindh Health Department officials confirmed that at least 14 people died at various public and private hospitals in the city due to suspected gas poisoning, including nine at the Ziauddin Hospital Keamari, two each at the Civil Hospital, Karachi, and Kutyana Memon Hospital while one person died at the Burhani Hospital in the downtown area of the city. Health department officials said most of the deceased were brought dead at the hospitals while these and several other hospitals received over 290 patients with breathing difficulty and tightness of chest, itching of eyes, and abdominal cramps, adding that most of the patients were discharged from the hospitals after first aid but 12 of them were in critical condition.

Dr. Muhammad Aqeel, a senior medical expert and Registrar of the Ziauddin Hospital, Keamari, who managed over 200 patients with suspected gas poisoning, told The News that they suspected gas poisoning due to hydrogen sulfide, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide gas in the Keamari incident, saying most of the patients were brought to the emergency section with ‘symptoms typical to gas poisoning as either hydrogen sulfide, carbon monoxide or nitrogen oxide (NOX) could be the cause of inhalation problems. "Some of the more serious patients were even taken to a private hospital with pulmonary edema, which is only seen after gas poisoning. As we were suspecting gas poisoning, we provided oxygen and some steroids. Those who were in critical condition were put on life support,” Dr. Aqeel said adding that they had sent the samples of deceased and those affected for analysis and now it is up to forensic experts to analyze the cause of the deadly incident.

But the conflicting lab reports could not direct hospitals to a specific treatment, responding to symptomatic management. Officials of the Sindh Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) insisted that hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxide (NOX) gasses could be the most likely causes of gas poisoning in the Keamari area, saying most of the people affected due to poisonous gas were residents of a ghetto, the Railway Colony, which is adjacent to crude oil storage facilities at the Karachi Port and were affected due to the high concentration of the lethal gas. “We suspect that Hydrogen Sulfide gas leakage from the oil storage facilities as the most likely cause of gas poisoning in the Keamari area. We have collected the samples from the entire area and sent them for analysis. The lab reports would help us identify the source of emission that resulted in the loss of precious lives in the area,” a senior official of the SEPA told The News. Citing the air quality data and presence of lethal gasses in the Keamari area, the official said a private but reputable lab Global Environmental Lab also collected samples from the affected area and found high concentrations of hydrogen sulfide and other lethal gases, especially in the area around the Ziauddin Hospital, Keamari.

Some officials at the Chemical Laboratory of the Sindh government and the Karachi Port Trust (KPT) blamed a different gas used for fumigation of containers at the port and ships, saying the highly poisonous Methyl Bromide (CH3Br) was used without supervision and inappropriately by the fumigation service, which resulted in the poisoning and caused deaths. “A company that fumigates ships and containers as per the requirement of the Plant Protection Department of the federal government used Methyl Bromide gas inappropriately to fumigate a large shipment of imported used clothes at the Pakistan International Container Terminal (PICT). This gas is highly toxic and can result in immediate death if inhaled by humans. It is mixed with some other gasses to make it noticeable as naturally occurring Methyl Bromide is colourless and transparent gas," an official of the Sindh Chemical Laboratory told The News.

All the various reports are unhelpful and at odds to each other compounding the treatment scenario as even after 48 hours, the specific agent could not be detected as more people fall victim to the toxin.

All the various reports are unhelpful and at odds with each other compounding the treatment scenario as even after 48 hours, the specific agent could not be detected as more people fall victim to the toxin. Meanwhile, the state petroleum company, PSO, has confirmed shutting down one of its storage oil terminals in Keamari, its communication official said.