Toxic Wood Preservative Poisoning Port of Djibouti

ROME, Italy, February 19, 2002 (ENS) - Workers and the environment in the Port of Djibouti are at risk from 10 leaking plastic shipping containers of a toxic pesticide, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warned today. The toxic is chromated copper arsenate, used as a wood preservative for power and telegraph poles. Arsenic is a known human carcinogen.

Djibouti is located in northeast Africa on the Gulf of Aden at the southern entrance to the Red Sea. It borders on Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia.

The agency called for immediate emergency intervention to contain and remove the pesticide. "The authorities in Djibouti should not be left alone with this problem," said FAO expert Kevin Helps, who was asked by the Djibouti Ministry of Agriculture to visit the port and make recommendations on safeguarding public health and the environment.


The city of Djibouti (Photo courtesy Lulseged Ayalew)
"There is no danger to the entire port yet, but we are concerned about the current storage point. Liquid continues to leak from all the containers. An attempt to open one of the containers to inspect the cargo was stopped when liquid started to flow," said Helps.

The present location of the containers is contaminated, and the worst affected site is within 400 meters (130 feet) of a food aid store.

Until recently the port authorities had not received information about the toxicity of the cargo and safety data. "There is no doubt that the incorrect handling of the chemical has exposed many workers to unacceptable levels of this toxic material," Helps said.

Over 200 metric tons of the chromated copper arsenate were shipped recently in plastic containers from the United Kingdom to be delivered to the Ethiopian Power Corporation, the FAO says.

"All previous shipments of this chemical have used steel drums for the product and no leakage occurred," said Helps. "It appears that the plastic containers have suffered a catastrophic failure resulting in leakage from the container. The containers must have started to leak while on the vessel."


Port of Djibouti is the main entry point for food for Ethiopia. (Photo courtesy Port Technology)
Port authorities have taken steps to safeguard the contaminated areas, and the potential for the spread of contamination by dust or wind has been reduced, Helps said.

As an immediate emergency intervention, the agency wants to quarantine the storage site and place guards around it to prevent access to the area. All further leakage should be contained to prevent further soil contamination.

"Under no circumstances should the containers be opened until a specialist in dealing with hazardous waste with all necessary safety equipment is present at the site," Helps cautioned. "The pesticides cannot be transported to Ethiopia without being repackaged."

"This work must be completed before the chemical is spread by rains. The chemical is highly soluble and very easily leached from soil. If the chemical were to be leached into the sea, the impact on the fish stocks would be very serious," he warned.

Highly contaminated material should be sent back to the UK, the FAO said. "Currently no suitable facilities exist in Africa for the safe disposal of this hazardous product. The final repackaging and decontamination will cost a minimum of US$800,000. The immediate emergency intervention will amount to US$35,000," Helps said.

The UN agency recommended that the government of Djibouti pursue the polluter to pay the bill. Helps said, "The final liability for the cargo needs urgent clarification. The party responsible for the leakage and contamination needs to be identified and held responsible."