The South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA) recently staged a demonstration outside Safripol and the Department of Health following claims that the leakage of industrial toxic gas led to more than 400 people being stricken with breathing problems, headaches, dizziness and other ailments.

The SDCEA claimed that its staff at its offices in Major Calvert Street was also affected by the leak on 16 August and that almost a month later it was still awaiting a response from the authorities including the eThekwini Municipality as to what action is to be taken against the company.

According to the SDCEA, children and adults had experienced burning sensations of the eyes and mouth, nausea, bleeding noses, breathing difficulties, skin irritation and rashes, vomiting, headaches and dizziness. Desmond D’Sa, a pioneer of the SDCEA member and an internationally acclaimed environmentalist, said among those affected were residents in Wentworth, Major Calvert Street, Hime Street, Assegai, Austerville and parts of Merebank.

“Once the wind picked up, the gas was carried as far as Amanzimtoti, Durban North, Umbilo, Yellowood Park, Merebank, Bluff, Isipingo and other areas. The gas invaded people’s homes and affected mothers, children and other residents,” said D’Sa.

According to D’Sa, many people who were overcome by the gas, were sent to the Bluff Medical Centre and St Augustine’s Hospital.

“Others were turned away due to the company not being able to pay upfront for those requiring treatment. An eThekwini Municipality official who attended a meeting at Safripol on 16 August also fell ill. He suffers from asthma and experienced breathing difficulties,” said D’Sa. He added that after the Department of Environmental Health conducted an inspection they were informed that six cubic metres of Dowtherm, (containing a cocktail of diphenyl oxide, biphenyl and diphenyl) was released.

“The gas traversed to the KZN North Coast and South Coast after the wind picked up. When the leak started, it was apparent that the eThekwini Municipality and its Health Department had no emergency plan to protect the public from falling ill. We the SDCEA have been calling for an emergency plan for the past 10 years. Furthermore, there were no alarms sounded, no community notification or instructions that the public ought to have followed. No representative from Safripol, no health officials, no police officers nor the fire brigade came to address the community.

“However, we did note that the workers from the Safripol plant were evacuated and a neighbouring company’s workers were also evacuated,” said D’Sa.

According to D’Sa, Safripol’s first address to the community was on 17 August.
“They came at 8am and at 1pm the occupational clinic was brought to the community.
The company provided a general practitioner and a nurse to assist the affected patients,” he said.
D’Sa remarked that the affected communities met on 25 August and demanded that an urgent meeting be set up with the Minister of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries Barbara Creecy, the newly appointed Mayor of eThekwini, Mxolisi Kaunda and MEC, Nomusa Dube-Ncube

The other demands include:
•The Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries and Mayor Kaunda must give clear instructions to Safripol for the mobile clinic to be available for a longer period. Lung specialists must assess all those who were affected. For this to be done, the patients must be referred to St Augustine’s Hospital or the Bluff Medical Centre, or a specialist from the Occupational Health Unit from the Nelson Mandela School of Medicine should be appointed.
• The affected patients who were treated at St Augustine’s Hospital have given permission to the SDCEA for their medical documentation to be released to the SDCEA’s lawyers and the government.
• The medication given by the hospital and the centre must be made available to the affected children and adults.
• An independent pulmonologist (lung specialist) and other relevant specialists must be appointed. “The SDCEA is worried about the impact the gas leak has on toddlers, the frail and aged,” said D’Sa. Attempts to obtain comment from Safripol were unsuccessful.

The phones at the company’s Durban branch and in Bryanstan and Sasolberg in Gauteng went unanswered.

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