FOOTPRINTS: SOMETHING FOUL IN THE AIR

Published January 28, 2023
AN official seals a factory at Ali Muhammad Goth in the Keamari area of Karachi. —Online
AN official seals a factory at Ali Muhammad Goth in the Keamari area of Karachi. —Online

An air of tragedy permeates Ali Muhammad Goth; after all, this is the locality where as many as 18 people are said to have lost their lives due to “poisonous factory emissions”.

On the narrow street, lined with bare walls and anonymous gates, it is hard to distinguish a residence from a factory — at least from the outside.

On Friday, media persons milled about, interviewing locals as families of the victims mourned their loved ones. More than 50 more residents are said to have developed symptoms similar to the deceased, including sore throat, cough and fever.

Khadim Hussain, who lost his wife and three children, told Dawn his only surviving off spring also had the same symptoms, but his health was improving.

“One of my sons was 18 years old and I had just got him married around six months ago. My other son was only four, while my daughter was just one year old,” he said. “No one from the government came here for our help. We have no hope from anyone but Allah.”

“We all are brothers and cousins”, Mr Hussain’s brother told Dawn, adding that 14 of the 18 deaths afflicted the same family.

“We have been sent medicines and told [by the government] that the Murshid Hospital is free for us, but we are not taking our sick family members to hospital because they are getting better as the [offending] factories have been sealed now,” he says.

Although the deaths did not occur overnight — the death toll is said to have risen over a period of weeks — another local, whose family was not affected, feared that they may also fall prey to the deadly fumes.

Locals Dawn spoke to said that a new factory had recently opened in the area a few months ago. “They make talcum powder and other cosmetic products by crushing stones and rocks. That creates dangerous fumes,” one resident said.

But rather than a toxic stench, there is uncertainty in the air, and if law enforcement officials are to be believed, there is more to this issue than meets the eye.

“It is a hoax, there is no substantial evidence to back the claims about the claimed number of deaths,” a police official told Dawn on condition of anonymity.

While admitting that there may have been “a couple of deaths”, the officer revealed that even though a factory owner had been detained, no FIR had been lodged because no one from the affected family was willing to come forward as a complainant.

When asked why factories in the area were sealed if there was no evidence of any such incident, a Keamari district official told Dawn that when they visited the area on Thursday night, the air did have something in it because their team also experienced sore throat-like symptoms. According to them, no toxic material has been found so far.

When Dawn approached the local mosque to ascertain whether funerals had been held, a source said the area had witnessed no such activity.

One theory doing the rounds is that the locals are trying to extort money out of the factory owners in the area.

One of the factory owners in the area posited that there were over 500 people living in the area, but only a few homes appeared to be affected by the toxic fumes.

“No one from the next street has shown any symptoms. If there was something that poisonous, most of these factories have been there for decades, why nothing happened earlier? In fact, why did nothing happen to the factory employees?”

Keamari District Health Officer Dr Arif Rehman also has his doubts.

“We have conducted around two dozen sputum tests and X-rays and have found no evidence of anything poisonous. Some of those examined had tuberculosis patches, but even they were quite old. We have carried out culture sensitivity tests and the results should be available by Sunday,” he told Dawn.

The DHO frankly admitted that they had hit a dead end. “We don’t know what this is. We are confused. We have told [the locals] that if any other deaths occur, they must tell us and we will conduct an autopsy to confirm.”

He revealed that the locals had been unwilling to allow exhumation of the graves of those who are said to have perished. While Dawn saw unmarked graves at the local cemetery near Murshid Hospital, there was no way of knowing who was buried where and whether they had indeed died after inhaling poisonous fumes.

Published in Dawn, January 28th, 2023

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