Gasping for breath

February 5, 2023

It is still too early to say something conclusive about the tragedy that struck Keamari

Gasping for breath


ow can you expect a person who has lost sixteen family members within weeks to not be beyond himself with grief?” asked Ghulam Qadir.

The elderly man sat in the shade of a chipped wall in an un-metalled street in Moach Goth. His wrinkled face was frozen into a mask as he spoke of the tragic events that began unfolding in early January and led to the death of sixteen members of his family.

On January 5, some members of Qadir’s family developed a cough with a high fever. Qadir rushed them to the local hospital even though he could barely afford it. The doctors told him the children had measles and prescribed medication after which their symptoms went into remission before flaring up again.

“The children had difficulty breathing, apparently because of the dust. Their chests were also congested,” recounted Qadir, “they died within two hours.” Between January 1 and January 27, Qadir lost sixteen members of his family, all showing similar symptoms.

“We tried our best to save them. We took them to hospitals in Saeedabad and Moach Goth,” said Qadir. “We are labourers. We barely had money for food,” he said. “Nobody helped us or checked after us,” he sighed.

On January 26, the Health Department issued a statement announcing that at least eighteen people had died from January 1 to January 25 in the Moach Goth area of Karachi’s Keamari district.

The statement acknowledged that the residents had complained of a pungent smell and irritation in their throats. Most of the residents attributed the ‘foul smell’ to the two factories in their neighbourhood.

According to the official Health Department statement, an initial investigation had suggested that the deaths had been caused by some chemicals. The chemical buildup, it said, had resulted in the victims developing interstitial lung disease which led to their death.

Some Health Department officials also blamed the toxic chemical discharge from the two nearby factories.

Qadir’s was not the only family affected by the mystery chemical. Over the past few months, several people had lost their lives. An adequate explanation is still awaited.

Meer Hassan, a resident of Moach Goth is one of them. He says four people from his family, including children, had passed away after developing similar symptoms.

“First my 4-year-old nephew died. Then, a few days later his mother passed away. Later still, my brother Khadim Hussain, and his one-year-old daughter Halima also died,” he says. “My brother had married twice,” says Hassan. “Only one of his children from his deceased wife has survived,” he says.

“Four days ago, Hussain’s children from his second wife also reported the same symptoms,” he said. “They are now stable, following the closure of the factories,” Hassan says.

For Hassan, this is proof enough that toxins released by the factories in the locality were causing the fatal sickness. “Pollutants emitted by the plastic and grease oil factories killed my brother, nephew and sister,” he says. “My brother’s house was practically surrounded by these units,” he says.

According to the Health Department statement issued on January 26, the victims’ symptoms had included fever, sore throat and shortness of breath.

“Medical camps for the treatment of pneumonia have been established in the affected area. Further investigation is under way,” the statement says.

While the Health Department statement did not rule out the possibility of toxic chemicals causing the deaths, a top Environmental Protection Agency official dismissed the suggestion that there had been a poisonous gas leak in the area.

“SEPA officials immediately reached the area and checked the air quality as soon as the incident was reported. We found that the air quality was not deviating from the parameters set by the agency,” he told The News on Sunday.

Categorically rejecting the claim that the fatalities had something to do with air quality, he said, “the people did not die because there was a toxic gas leak. We have already provided a report on Kaemari’s air quality to the Health Department secretary.”

While a statement by the Health Department did not rule out the possibility of toxic chemicals causing the deaths, a top Environmental Protection Agency official dismissed the suggestion that there was a poisonous gas leak in the area.

He said that the environmental agency was still in the process of investigating the cause of death.

Another agency official said it had been several years since the SEPA performed air quality checks. ”Ambient monitoring was halted because we did not have the resources or equipment to monitor the whole city,” the officer disclosed.

He said that the agency lacked funds to ensure environmental quality standards through regular inspections. Instead, he said, it has been investigating only specific reports of a toxic gas leak.

Director General Health Dr Muhammad Juman Bahoto told TNS that the department had carried out investigations to identify the cause of deaths. “The department collected blood samples from 49 people as well as samples of the soil and water. The clinical features of those samples suggest that these deaths occurred because of some toxic gas leak,” he said.

Bahoto denied that there had been a measles outbreak in the area. “The victims included children as well as adults. The measles can’t cause death in 20 to 24 year olds”.

“Around 15 clinical features in the victims have been identified. These include fever, chest pain, dyspnea, allergies, inflammation and cough,” he said. “All these can be associated with a toxic gas leak,” he said.

The DG pointed out that a majority of the victims had lived near the factories. “Their houses and the factories were a mere 10 to 20 feet apart,” he said. “Some of these factories produce plastics, others crushing stone. Some units produce chemicals and greases,” he said.

Bahoto said that the factories had apparently been set up without any permission from the government. When the incident was highlighted in the media, some of those had stopped working.

“There is a need for an extensive investigation into whether these factories were the cause of the deaths,” remarked Bahoto. “A conclusion is yet to be reached. The reports of soil and water samples collected by the Health Department are awaited,” he said.

Journalist Amar Guriro said that there was no proof that the deaths in Moach Goth had occurred due to a toxic gas leak.

“We can’t blame toxic gas or another environmental problem just yet… something else might have caused the deaths,” said Guriro.

Guriro also said, “There could be many factors at play. It may be that some toxins leached into the groundwater and became a part of the food chain over the years,” he said. “Such toxins could have affected those with co-morbidities.”

Citing a similar tragedy in 2020, Guriro said skin disorders were then reported among residents of Ibrahim Hyderi.

Drawing a parallel, he said, “people in Moach Goth are complaining about difficulty in breathing, chest congestion, coughing and fever; in Ibrahim Hyderi they were suffering from skin illnesses.” “The government has a responsibility to conduct a thorough investigation,” said Guriro.

Speaking in an online session, Naeem Qureshi of the National Forum for Environment and Health said that the government was not tackling the environmental issues in the city. He said a large number of unregistered factories were springing up in residential areas and the government was allowing them to operate without any checks.

Qureshi also said that air pollution in Karachi was alarmingly high and a health hazard for the citizens. “Nobody knows how many workers may have died due to the factories processing plastics or producing other chemicals,” he said.

Home-Based Women Workers Federation (HBWWF) general secretary, Zehra Khan, said that at least twenty-two people had died in Moach Goth. “A majority of the victims were women and children who lived near some factories or worked there,” she added.

She said that the HBWWF had been demanding inspections to ensure the safety of workers but the government had yet to take any steps in this regard. “Moach Goth and its surroundings, where hundreds of factories are operating, are not a priority for the government because it is not an elite neighbourhood,” she added.

Khan said the Sindh Occupational Safety and Health Commission was established in 2018 but so far had convened only three meetings. “As a member of the Sindh Occupational Safety and Health Commission, I have nothing to share with the public or the media,” he said.

She said the commission did not have the equipment and the resources to enforce the Occupational Safety and Health Act 2017. Only two meetings were held in 2021, and none in 2022.

In 2020, a mysterious gas leak was reported in Keamari and 25 people lost their lives; many more were rushed to hospitals. The victims had told the medical staff that they were having trouble breathing.

The same year, another incident was reported in February when four people lost their lives with similar symptoms.

The authorities had then told the media that there had been a poisonous gas leak. This was followed by a tussle among the Health Department, the Labour Department, the Karachi Port Trust, Pakistan Navy’s Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Defence, the Maritime Security Agency and the Environment Protection Agency, all blaming somebody else.

The International Centre for Chemical and Biological Sciences (ICCBS), a research institute of the University of Karachi had then concluded in a report that soya bean dust from a ship docked at Karachi Port was causing the deaths. However, some experts had disputed the finding arguing that if the soybean dust had caused the deaths, the ship crew and the workers offloading the consignment would have been the first victims.

The writer is based in Karachi. He reports mostly on labour and education policy

Gasping for breath