Wrong methods used to control toxic fumes

Gas emissions at the Dangerous Cargo Yard
By Malik Gunatilleke, Pix by Saman Kariyawasam

The Government Analyst Department revealed the Colombo City fire fighters who were rushed to contain the fire in a chemical-laden container at the Colombo harbour on Tuesday night aggravated the situation by using the wrong method to control the toxic fumes.

It was revealed fire fighters used water to try contain the fumes whereas they should never have used it --the effect of water mixing with the chemicals within the transit container resulted in poisonous fumes being emitted-- which began flowing into the city and caused concern amongst the residents. Additional Government Analyst, W.D.G.S. Gunathilaka who was at the scene told the Sunday Times the chemical found in the container was Trichloroisocyanuric Acid which is chlorine based disinfectant used for swimming pools.

He said when acid mixes with water the immediate reaction was the emission of a high heat chlorine gas which was toxic and caused dangerous side effects to people directly exposed to it including throat and eye irritation, vomiting and respiratory problems.

Clouds of poisonous fumes billowing from the Dangerous Drugs Yard at the Colombo Port caused concern to residents in the vicinity of the port. Below a resident, her face covered with a mask, said the fumes made it difficult to breathe, disputing claims by officials that problems caused to the public were minimal.

“The heavy rains and flooding in the area led to the chemical being exposed to water and caused the release of emissions,” he said. He said once it was understood the contents of the container could not be salvaged, the authorities attempted to contain the chemical reaction.

“The following day an unknown party had attempted to hose down the chemicals causing 25 barrels to explode. At this point I stepped in and ordered them to put dry sand over the contents after which we were able to control the situation,” he said.

Dr. Rohan Perera from the Department of Chemistry at the University of Colombo said the chemical reacted to water and emissions could not be contained by the addition of water. Water only worsened the situation.Chairman of the Ports Authority, Dr. Priyath Wickrema said several attempts were made to bring the situation under control.

According to data sheets provided water had to be used to flush the contents of the container. “There were several different opinions at this time on how to contain it. Finally we managed to control the emissions with sand,” he said.

He explained that the container was transiting at the Colombop port when the incident took place.
Dr. Wickrema added the effects the chemical had on people in the vicinity was minimal although one air force officer who was sent inside the container to get a sample of the chemical had been hospitalised.

“We attempted to do some tests on the chemical, so an officer was sent in to get a sample. He had minor breathing difficulties and was given treatment for it,” he said.The fire department was also called in on Tuesday night to assist with the situation at the harbour. According to Fire Chief J. Kannangara, the Fire Department had been alerted of the situation at 7.30 p.m. on Tuesday.

“We received a report some fumes were leaking from a container at the dangerous cargo yard and we immediately sent in a fire engine and a hazardous-materials response vehicle,” he said. The officers were on stand by for 18 hours during which they used water to wash away the chemicals after which they used dry sand to cover it up.

The Fire Chief said the authorities considered evacuating the people in the vicinity because the fumes were heading towards the populated areas around the harbour. However, the fire department set a perimeter of around 250 m to 300 m around the container for safety reasons and claimed a few people were affected by the fumes.

When the Sunday Times visited the people in the surrounding area the day after the incident, the extent of the toxic fumes which engulfed the nearby shops and homes seemed to have caused more problems than the authorities suggested.

Amidst the smoke that was still flowing into the city on Wednesday afternoon most of the shopkeepers and residents were forced to wear face masks to prevent breathing in fumes which had already caused them respiratory problems and dizziness.

V. Subramaniam a street vendor on St. Anthony’s Mawatha said he had felt a burning sensation in his eyes since Tuesday and he had heard some children in his area had been hospitalised with serious breathing difficulties.

“It began at around 8 p.m. on Tuesday. Since then many persons had been complaining of some side effects. Unfortunately the authorities have not given us any information on what this substance is and how to cope with its side effects,” he said.

Ms. E. Greda a seamstress in the area complained it was very difficult to work in the conditions, especially because it was difficult to breathe after the fumes covered the area. “Last night it was terrible, we could not breathe with the smoke that was coming into our homes. We were not sure whether the smoke was poisonous or not. No one was giving us any information regarding what was happening” she said.

Some residents who lived in areas some distance away from the harbour complained of a nauseating smell which seemed to have been spread by strong winds blowing into the city on that night. Mrs. Muttiah, a resident of Ibawatta said at around 9.30 pm she got the smell of something burning which continued throughout the night. She claimed the smell was unbearable and people found it difficult to breathe during the night.

The Central Environment Authority which has done an internal report on the incident is due to produce a comprehensive report on the full extent of the damage. CEA Chairman Charitha Herath said a team was sent to investigate the incident and would hand in a full report by the end of the week. He said the recommendations would be used as future referral.

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