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Fact-check: Keamari gas leak’s Methyl Bromide audio clip

Reporting | - Posted: Feb 19, 2020 | Last Updated: 8 months ago
Posted: Feb 19, 2020 | Last Updated: 8 months ago
Did the secondhand clothing fumigation cause the deaths? Could the highly toxic methyl bromide (CH3BR) gas have caused the deaths of 14 people in Karachi over the weekend? Samaa Digital investigated an audio clip and text message circulating on social media that presented this theory.

In the audio clip a man provides this ‘information’: A company called Progressive Fumigation Corporation sprayed CH3BR into a used clothes container at the Karachi port. The gas leaked into the environment. Methyl Bromide is banned under the Montreal Convention because it damages the Ozone layer and was supposed to be phased out globally by 2005. It is lethal for humans; if inhaled, a large dosage can cause death in a matter of hours.

Samaa Digital was unable to independently verify the origin of the audio clip and accompanying text message given that it circulated on WhatsApp. We did, however, get in touch with the company mentioned in the viral clip.

The owner of Progressive Fumigation Corporation, Qazi Ahtesham ul Haq, confirmed to SAMAA Digital that they did fumigate a secondhand clothes container on February 14 and 15 and used CH3BR. He said that the government has permitted the use of this gas.

The Port Health Authority, which is the agency responsible for the quarantine of secondhand clothes shipments, endorsed the company’s statement. The Montreal Protocol requires a phase of methyl bromide for applications other than quarantine and pre-shipment purposes, it said. In fact, the government has made it mandatory to fumigate all shipments of secondhand clothes since the Coronavirus outbreak, said Majid, a Quarantine Assistant at the Port Health Authority.

The audio clip, therefore, gives incomplete information about CH3BR and is misleading. What it does correctly state is the company’s name and the fact that a secondhand clothing shipment was fumigated using methyl bromide.

This leads us to an obvious question: did the gas leak during fumigation?

The company says, and the quarantine authorities corroborate this, that the exposure of CH3BR lasts only 24 hours. “We only remove rubber from the sealed container and insert a pipe and spray the gas, there is no chance of a leakage,” said Haq. “We have been doing it for 30 years and no such incident [leakage] has ever happened,” he added. The company has since issued a detailed audio statement to clarify its position.

The fumigation is performed in the presence of quarantine officials and if there was a leak they would have be affected first, the company said. This view was endorsed by officials of quarantine agencies.

Officials from both the PHA and the Plant Protection Department, two of the agencies responsible for quarantine at the port, stated there was not a single report of anyone at the port being affected from inhaling methyl bromide.

When asked if the vessel that brought soybean to the port was fumigated with CH3BR as well, DG Plant Protection Falaknaz Khan told Samaa Digital that they inspected the vessel and cleared it because it was fumigated in the US and didn’t require further fumigation.

The lab reports by Gel Pvt. Ltd., and a University of Karachi research lab do not show the presence of this gas in the air or in the bodies of people affected, something that was pointed out by the fumigation company as well as the quarantine authorities. However, the autopsy reports are still being prepared.
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Keamari, Gas Leak, Karachi, Methyl Bromide

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