December 23 1997
Chemical Explosions: Madagascar and Alabama
On November 5, 1997, three violent explosions occurred at a
chemical warehouse owned by the transnational company Hoechst
in Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar. The explosions
were followed by a fire that burned approximately 155 tons of
chemicals including 10 tons of pesticides. The cause of the
explosions and fire is still unknown.
At its height, the fire's temperature reached 2,000 degrees
centigrade and flames were 100 feet high. Two firefighters
were injured while fighting the blaze, and two people were
treated for breathing problems. The fire was extinguished
after ninety minutes.
Smoke from the fire formed a dark cloud approximately 300
feet wide, which later dispersed over the surrounding area.
The Hoechst warehouse was located in a densely populated
area, and fallout from the cloud came down on residential
areas and in rice paddies up to a mile away. Local
authorities were concerned that lakes and other waterways
were polluted by the fallout, and advised people in
surrounding areas not to use or drink the water.
Hoechst has not provided a comprehensive list of chemicals
stored in the warehouse, but it appears that several
pesticides were destroyed in the fire. According to
Faramalala Raveloharifera of the National Committee for the
Control of the Management of Chemicals (Madagascar), these
included copper sulfate, chlorpyrifos, dimethoate,
endosulfan, 2,4-D, deltamethrin, sulfur powder and zinc
Firefighters used more than 13,000 gallons of water, which
they had to transport to the blaze as the warehouse did not
have sufficient water sources on site. In addition, there
were no safeguards to prevent run-off from contaminating
Hoechst is currently analyzing health and environmental
impacts from the fire, and have hired an expert from South
Africa, Piet Marais, to assess and manage the clean-up. After
examining the site, Marais stated, "There is no danger to the
health of Hoechst personnel, or to the population nearby."
According to Faramalala Raveloharifera, however, immediate
medical follow-up is needed for approximately 200 people who
were exposed to fumes during the fire. In addition, the
question of what will happen to the tons of toxic waste at
the burn site -- especially as the rainy season is about to
start -- has not yet been addressed.
More than 47,000 gallons of Dursban (active ingredient
chlorpyrifos) washed into lakes and streams near Birmingham,
Alabama, after fire destroyed the warehouse where it was
stored. The fire, which started October 2, 1997, and burned
for three days, took 55 million gallons of water to
extinguish. Runoff from the fire fighting effort flowed into
nearby Village Creek, resulting in massive fish kills.
"There were a lot more (dead) fish than we were able to
count," said John Williford, an official with the Alabama
Department of Environmental Management (ADEM). "If you
actually counted every fish, it may come to more than a
million. In some areas of Village Creek we've essentially had
a total fish kill. The Dursban has wiped out everything."
Birds, reptiles and other wildlife living along the first 26
miles of contaminated waterway have also been affected.
An estimated 4,000 gallons of Dursban (with chlorpyrifos in a
40% concentration) and thirty 55-gallon drums of polymer
resins burned in the fire, releasing an enormous plume of
dense smoke that drifted over the entire Birmingham downtown
area. Hospitals reported that no one was acutely poisoned in
Representatives of DowElanco, which began assisting in the
cleanup seven days after the fire began, placed large bags of
carbon in Village Creek to absorb the chemical. Tim
Maniscalow, a spokesperson for DowElanco, stated that the
level of Dursban detected in the water is not high enough to
cause problems for people. He said that DowElanco is
confident that Dursban in the water will degrade and the
aquatic system will return to its previous state. However,
according to the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to
Pesticides (NCAP), persistence in water can vary depending on
environmental conditions. The longest persistence has been
measured in laboratory studies (between 35 and 140 days),
while shorter persistence has been measured under outdoor
conditions (between 17 and 24 days).
Sources: Pesticide and Toxic Chemical News, October 29, 1997;
Albert Donnay, based on Birmingham News, October 7 and 10,
1997; Pesticides News, December 1997; Alexander von
Hildebrand, Projet Voarisoa, Madagascar, personal
communication, November 14, 1997; Journal of Pesticide
Reform, Spring, 1995.
Contacts: DowElanco story -- Albert Donnay, MCS Referral and
Resources, Inc. 508 Westgate Road, Baltimore, MD 21229.
Hoechst story -- PANNA.
Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA)
116 New Montgomery, #810, San Francisco, CA 94105
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