Toxic gas: Chemical lab says respiratory problems may be result of 'overexposure to soybean dust'

Updated Feb 19 2020

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A family member comforts a woman who fainted after an alleged toxic gas leak in Karachi on Tuesday February 18, 2020. — AP
A family member comforts a woman who fainted after an alleged toxic gas leak in Karachi on Tuesday February 18, 2020. — AP

The International Centre for Chemical and Biological Sciences (ICCBS) on Tuesday advised the government to consider "exposure to soybean dust (aeroallergens)" as a cause of breathing difficulties being faced by residents of Karachi's Keamari area.

So far, 14 people from different areas of Keamari have died and over 400 have been taken to different hospitals for treatment reportedly after inhaling toxic gas. Residents have complained of experiencing breathing difficulties, "burning sensation in the nose", watery eyes and itching in the throat.

ICCBS is an advanced research centre at the University of Karachi. The Dr Panjwani Centre for Molecular Medicine and Drug Research and Hussain Ebrahim Jamal Research Institute of Chemistry are part of the research centre.

A letter sent today to Karachi Commissioner Iftikhar Shallwani by Dr Muhammad Iqbal Choudhary, the director of ICCBS, said that the lab had examined blood and urine samples of people "exposed to toxic aerosols" as well as soybean dust samples collected from the port area. Dr Choudhary said that while the ICCBS was still "extensively engaged in deciphering the cause of this toxic exposure", the findings so far suggest that the symptoms being experienced by Keamari residents are a result of "overexposure to soybean dust".

The lab suggested that hospitals should give bronchodilators and anti-histamines to affected people. ICCBS also advised that "extreme care" be taken while unloading soybean containers.

The letter also pointed out that soybean dust exposure-related epidemics have been reported earlier from other parts of the world as well with associated morbidity and mortality. The ICCBS attached a report of similar incidents reported in Barcelona, Spain with its letter.

Earlier, while talking to Dawn.com, philanthropist Faisal Edhi had said that "fine dust particles" that are released in the air during the offloading of soybeans might be the reason behind breathing problems being experienced by residents.

"But if cases continue to emerge tonight, it would mean that the source of the gas is something else, not the soybean shipment," Edhi had added.

'Localised'

So far, all of the cases of people being affected by the toxic gas have been reported from the Keamari area. Earlier today, one person was admitted to a hospital from Lea Market area, raising concerns that the incident may not be a "localised" one, as claimed by Commissioner Shallwani.

However, Media Coordinator to the Health and Popular Welfare Minister Meeran Yousuf said the affected person was a worker at the port.

She added that the government will issue an advisory on Wednesday.

Initial reports

Authorities were alerted to the situation when people in the Keamari area began rushing to nearby hospitals with severe breathing problems on Sunday night. The concerned authorities were not sure about the exact cause of the incident.

The next day, on Monday, Shallwani had informed a Sindh cabinet meeting that a ship that was offloading soybean or a similar substance could be the probable cause of the toxic gas.

"When offloading from this ship is halted, the smell too diminishes," he had reasoned.

Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah had ordered authorities to evacuate people from affected areas yesterday.