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Tanker cleaner theory: experts sceptical soybean caused Keamari ‘gas leak’

Retired navy engineer says toxic cleaning water leaked into sewer

SAMAA | - Posted: Feb 19, 2020 | Last Updated: 11 months ago
Posted: Feb 19, 2020 | Last Updated: 11 months ago
Tanker cleaner theory: experts sceptical soybean caused Keamari ‘gas leak’

In this file photo, an overview shows tankers parked outside a local oil refinery in the Pakistan's port city of Karachi on Feb. 22, 2011. Photo: AFP

Experts are questioning the theory that a soybean container at the Karachi port is behind the toxic gas leak that has killed 14 people and left over 500 sick, including doctors.

The leak was first reported Sunday. By Tuesday University of Karachi’s International Centre for Chemical and Biological Sciences said that a soybean container at Keamari Port was the likely cause. 

“The symptoms due to exposure to soybean dust (aeroallergens) may be considered as the possible cause,” a letter sent to the Karachi Commissioner said.

However, other experts have been sceptical. “The findings are not very consistent with this soybean story,” a doctor at Ziauddin Hospital Keamari who has been treating patients brought in with alarming symptoms told SAMAA Digital on Wednesday. 

“I read about the one that happened in Barcelona as well but the quick progression to neurological deficit and death is not something that’s been explanatory.”

Up to 10 people were collapsing at one time and being admitted to the ER, she added. “Two of our very competent staff are in the ICU since they’ve been working long shifts due to this incident and they also live in nearby hospitals so their exposure to this substance has been consistent,” the doctor said.

She added that one of the staff members admitted to the ICU was brought in with a seizure and severe alkalosis. Alkalosis happens when the pH in the blood is above the normal range of 7.35 to 7.45.

It can happen due to a drop in carbon dioxide or increase in plasma bicarbonate. If not treated rapidly, it can be fatal.

The doctor said one of the staffers was shifted to Ziauddin Hospital North because the environment at Keamari is not conducive.

“While performing their duty, almost 20 staff members of Ziauddin Hospital Keamari had been affected by the poisonous gas. A few have been shifted to wards and most of them are in critical condition, kept under observation in the ICU,” said an official statement from the hospital.

Three people have been shifted to Ziauddin Hospital North Campus, one to the Clifton campus.

Another expert believes that there hasn’t been a leak of toxic gases and neither is soybean the culprit.

“If there was a gas leak on the ship or port the workers would have been affected. But only the residents of Keamari were affected,” said the man who is a retired chief engineer in the merchant navy.

He thinks there has been faulty disposal of chemical-laden water after unloading cargo from ships. This chemical-laden water flowed into the area’s sewerage system.

The ports receive tankers that offload cargo that includes oil and other and chemicals. These tankers are washed before and after unloading. An oily water separator is used to separate the oily residue from the water. The residue collects in the sludge tank. The sludge is collected and disposed off by shore facilities. The water is then drained.

“I don’t know if they drained the water properly or let it flow directly into sewerage lines. Now sewerage lines already have some gases. If it mixes with that, it becomes more toxic,” he said.

These cleaning activities happen round the clock and the authorities are supposed to keep a log of them. Ships need to undock from the port as soon as possible because for every hour they are docked, it costs thousands of dollars, explained the navy engineer.

When the same tanks are cleaned on ships very strict protocols are followed. After cleaning a tank an oxygen analyser is used to test the air. If oxygen levels in the tank aren’t at 21.1% we don’t go inside, he said.

A mishap or casualty can prove to be very costly as the ship authorities would have to pay 72 months’ salary to the victim’s family.

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