18 May 2024 | 07:27 PM

Here it is: The toxic stockpile of chemicals in torched Durban warehouse

Key Takeaways

  •  The UPL warehouse apparently contained millions of litres of insecticides and other crop solution products, many times more than the warehouse could legally hold without environmental authorisation.
  • Included on the inventory: 500 000 litres of herbicide classified as “flammable, harmful and environmentally hazardous”, and that “may cause lung damage if swallowed”, as well as 3 000 kilograms of another that “may damage the unborn child”.
  • The company responsible, UPL, has refused to publicly disclosed what was in the warehouse and has repeatedly downplayed the seriousness of the disaster.

For more than a month, Durban has suffered through the toxic fallout from a fire at the UPL chemical warehouse.

Wetland and rivers have been contaminated, tons of dead fish have been removed by hazmat crews, and beaches have been closed. Meanwhile, residents who coughed their way through the fire’s toxic fumes for the first 10 days are now wondering whether they will suffer long-term health effects.

And for more than a month, the company responsible, the agro-chemical giant UPL Limited, has refused to publicly disclose which chemicals were stored in its warehouse.

The UPL warehouse was set alight on 12 July during the public violence following the imprisonment of former president Jacob Zuma. The fire was eventually extinguished on 22 July by which point the chemically-contaminated run-off from fighting the fire had reached the Ohlanga river, the Umhlanga lagoon and the popular beaches in north Durban.

When the company’s commercial director Jan Botha appeared before a parliamentary committee last week, he suggested that “now is not a time for apportioning blame”, while once again refusing to publicly disclose what UPL had stored in Durban, in the middle of a shopping hub, 400 meters from a school and upstream from the informal settlement of Blackburn Village.

What amaBhungane’s investigation has confirmed is that the 14 000m2 warehouse held millions of litres of chemicals, some classified as “harmful”, “toxic” or “very toxic”.

These include:

*More than 26 000 kilograms of Masta 900, an insecticide containing the “very potent neurotoxin” methomyl for which “contact with skin, inhalation of dust or spray, or swallowing may be fatal.”

*Another 1 800 litres of methamidophos, also a “very potent neurotoxin”.

*More than 40 000 litres of products using the herbicide paraquat which poses “high risk for all life forms”.

*Over 19 000 kilograms of Terbufos, another “very toxic” chemical presenting “high risk to all forms of life”.

*More than 600 000 kilograms of products containing tebuthiuron, a chemical classified as “very toxic to aquatic life … with long lasting effects” sold under a variety of brand names including Lava 800 and Limpopo SC.

*More than 160 000 kilograms of potassium hydroxide and 100 000 kilograms of ammonia hydroxide, both intermediate products used in manufacturing that are “extremely caustic” chemicals that burn skin on contact.

*More than 3 000 kilograms of Cyprex, a “highly active herbicide” containing halosulfuron-methyl, a product that “may damage the unborn child”, according to the European Chemicals Agency.

*More than 500 000 litres of Triclon, a product containing triclopyr butotyl and classified as “flammable, harmful and environmentally hazardous” and that “may cause lung damage if swallowed”.

*More than 30 000 litres of MSMA 720, also known as monosodium methylarsonate which has been shown to have “limited evidence of a carcinogenic effect”, and over time converts to inorganic arsenic in soil with the potential to contaminate water sources.

*More than 30 000 kilograms of oxamyl-based insecticides, including products Bandito and Oxadate, that also present “high risk for all life forms”.

*Almost 11 000 kilograms of Tenazole, containing “extremely flammable” fungicide terbuconazole.

*More than 1 000 litres of Colloso, a fungicide containing the active ingredient carbendazim which “may cause heritable genetic damage”,  “may impair fertility”, and “may cause harm to unborn child”.

These are just 13 of the chemicals on UPL’s inventory; there are over 700 line items on the list, including insecticides, herbicides, fungicides and rodenticides.

Many chemicals might have been destroyed by the flames but much was blown over the area in a foul plume or washed downstream by the runoff from fighting the fire.

The warehouse had no environmental permits, had not been through a formal risk assessment, nor had relevant authorities, such as the fire brigade, been warned about its contents.

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UPL did not respond to our detailed questions. Instead, its public relations firm referred us to the holding statement UPL has used since 24 July:

“We apologise that our client is unable to provide you with a detailed response at this time. Their immediate efforts … have been directed at extinguishing the fire, containing the escape of product from the facility property, and dealing with the many tasks associated with those activities.

“It is a mammoth exercise involving numerous authorities, consultants and contractors, all co-ordinated by their small team. As they deal with this they are endeavouring to communicate essential information to the public, authorities and others.”

Week 1: Avoiding responsibility

UPL, formerly known as United Phosphorous Limited, is one of the largest agro-chemical companies in the world. Listed on two stock exchanges in India, it has an annual turnover of $5.4-billion (R80-billion).

For the year ending 30 March 2020, UPL’s South African subsidiary had annual revenue of R2-billion, and country-wide inventories worth R480-million, giving some indication of the scale of what was stored in the Durban warehouse.

Whether UPL’s warehouse was intentionally sabotaged or a casualty of the looting of the Makro next door is unclear. But at around 2am on Tuesday 13 July, a fireball exploded, ripping the roof off the warehouse and, with it, the sprinkler system.

This created two problems: toxic smoke from the fire, and a chemical soup as water used to fight the fire flowed down the hill, into a wetland and into the Ohlanga river.

In the days that followed, journalists, NGOs and researchers called on the company to release a list of the chemicals stored in the warehouse.

Begrudgingly, UPL responded on Saturday 17 July, but would only say that its warehouse contained “a substantial quantity of crop solution products”.

“[I]t’s not clear at this stage what the burning of those products may have released into the environment. Testing under way will confirm this as soon as possible,” a public relations firm appointed by UPL told amaBhungane.

UNKNOWN: Clean-up crews have been working on the site from day 1, while residents wait for test results from UK laboratories. Photographer: Mlungisi Mbele

By this point, the fire had been burning for more than four days and the eThekwini municipality had closed beaches after field rangers noticed that the Ohlanga river and the Umhlanga lagoon had turned an eerie bright blue.

UPL likely knew that it was responsible: it is understood the warehouse contained more than 15 000kg of blue dye, a colourant that is often added to herbicides to help farmers identify which areas have been sprayed.

But in its press release UPL avoided taking responsibility: “It is not known at this stage what proportion of any pollution may be from the warehouse or other sources,” it said.

It added that samples were being taken from the river and lagoon “to determine if there has been any contamination”.

By Monday 19 July, a week after the fire first started, UPL was forced to admit it was likely responsible for the choking fumes emanating from the warehouse and the contaminated water flowing down the river.

The warehouse contained bio-stimulants and foliar feeds which “do not represent a health concern”, it said in an updated press release.

“There were also fungicides and herbicides, most of which were probably destroyed by the extreme heat of the fire and in most cases can be expected to have burned out into the atmosphere.”

Some herbicides and insecticides, however, “may not have burned out completely”, it added without elaborating.

Amongst the seven it identified by name was alpha-cypermethrin, an insecticide classified as “very toxic to aquatic life”, “toxic if swallowed”, and that “may cause damage to organs through prolonged or repeated exposure”, according to the European Chemical Agency.

Despite this, UPL said it had consulted with toxicologist Dr Gerhard Verdoorn: “He was provided with a list of the crop solution products stored in the warehouse… In his view, there is a minimal risk of any long-terms effects to the health of people exposed to smoke from the warehouse. However, exposure in the short term to some of the chemicals contained in the crop solution products may result in dermal, eye and respiratory irritation.”

This press release, one week after the fire started, would be the last time UPL would publicly disclose any of the chemicals stored in its warehouse.

Week 2: Burying the list

On Tuesday 20 July, the Kwazulu-Natal’s Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs department (KZN EDTEA) sent UPL a pre-directive, instructing the company to, amongst other things, start preparing an inventory of all the products stored in its warehouse at the time of the fire.

“The Department was informed that the warehouse had housed more than 1 600 different agricultural products specifically insecticides/pesticides and that a full list together with the [Material Safety Data Sheets] will be provided to the Department officials,” the letter read, warning that if a final directive was issued UPL would have seven days to hand over the list.

The actual number of chemicals on the list is smaller: the 1 600 items includes labels and packaging; an insecticide that comes in 5-litre and 20-litre containers appears as two line items.

But UPL did not come clean with this list immediately.

Instead, UPL would hand over a much shorter and less detailed list – the same one it had provided to Verdoorn which had solicited the “minimal risk” assessment.

eThekwini poster

The list Verdoorn had been provided with did not, in fact, contain a comprehensive inventory of all the products stored in UPL’s warehouse. Instead, it contained descriptions of around 350 different chemical formulations.

For instance, a herbicide described as an “acetochlor and atrazine and terbuthylazine formulated product” was likely a reference to Acetochlor TA 500, the only product UPL sells that contains those three active ingredients.

According to UPL’s list, this product was described as a “mild irritant” with “low acute toxicity” for humans. While Acetochlor TA 500 does have these characteristics, is also has other, more sinister ones.

One of its active ingredients, acetochlor, shows “positive evidence of mutagenicity”, i.e. the ability to permanently damage DNA; the US Environmental Protection Agency classifies acetochlor as “a probable human carcinogen”.

This information is spelled out in Acetochlor TA 500’s safety data sheet (previously called a material safety data sheet). Every chemical product must, by law, have this publicly-available document setting out the hazards of the product and its active ingredients. This includes information on what to do if someone swallows the product, how to fight a fire involving the product, and its various classifications and codes for transporting the product.

The problem with UPL’s list is that it made identifying the chemical products and their risks a painstakingly slow process for anyone who is not a toxicologist well-versed in crop protection products. The list also gave no indication of the volumes of each product that was stored.

Asked about the list, Verdoorn told us: “I was given [the list] and I only refined and corrected it … My position was that there was no deadly danger for humans. Even the smoke had blown away in the other direction.”

A week later, KZN EDTEA sent UPL an updated pre-directive: in addition to the inventory, UPL would be required to “list all dangerous goods that were stored on site” including “the relevant quantities in cubic metres (m3)”.

UPL would eventually provide that list with the 700+ line items of chemical products, but only to officials who, for reasons yet to be explained, have refused to make the list public.

Week 4: “I get chills when I hear Methomyl”

Last week, parliament’s portfolio committee on the environment flew to Durban to inspect the burned-out UPL warehouse and to hold public hearings on the disaster.

“Why is there a cloud of secrecy that surrounds exactly how much and what was in that warehouse?” Heinz de Boer, a Democratic Alliance MPL, demanded to know. 

“We want to know as the community, we want to know as elected representatives of the community exactly, an inventory – what chemicals, what pesticides, what toxins were in that warehouse? How much of each? And what is the potential impact on the communities and the wildlife around this area?”

When Verdoorn, UPL’s own toxicologist, stood up to testify he provided a far more damning picture than the “minimal risk” remarks that UPL attributed to him in their early press release.

TOXIC: Non-profit groups like the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA) have been pushing UPL to disclose what killed thousands of fish in the Ohlanga river and Umhlanga lagoon. UPL refuses to publicly disclose the list of chemicals. Supplied by: South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA)

Asked to rate the seriousness of the hazard, he said: “At the time of the incident … the site, obviously, a 10 out of 10… The water coming off the site a 9, the sediments on the site a 9 to 10, the air around and up on the site at the time of the incident and two days after that would have been a 9 to 10, and then the river system, anything from a 3 to a 7 [out of 10].”

Verdoorn told MPs that during the first few days of the fire, he got 31 calls from concerned members of the public, “mostly about nasal irritations and eye irritations”.

Now, a month after the fire, Verdoorn says the warehouse site is at “the level of at least 7” out of 10, sediment in the river: 7 out of 10, and places down river “below 7”, while air pollution from the warehouse has dropped to a 1 out of 10.

“The risk is in the ground and the water…we worked on probabilities,” he told us when we called him last week.

“We are still waiting on tests. There are things I know for sure we’ll find and things I doubt we’ll find. You could say we have qualitative information but not quantitative information.”

“There are products I am concerned about, especially the possible combination effect. This means that one product may have an effect of 2 and another have an effect of 3 but if you combine them the effect is not 5, but 8,” Verdoorn said.

He added: “I take comfort in the fact that there have been no hospitalisations.”

We asked Verdoorn which chemicals on UPL’s inventory would be really dangerous, then volunteered a UPL product like MASTA 900, made from the chemical methomyl.

“Methomyl is precisely what I was thinking of. I get chills when I hear methomyl [but] it decomposes quickly, 24 hours or so. In a fire it can be almost instantaneous,” he said.

“Paraquat is another one, fortunately it decomposes in water within three days and gets captured in sediment.”

This, seemingly, is the gamble UPL is willing to take: that the thousands of tons of toxic chemicals contained in its warehouse were mostly vaporised in the initial fireball that blew the roof off the UPL warehouse.

But which ones survived and were washed down the river or fells, days later, as an acrid-smelling rain? The test results, we are told, are still coming.

*We amended the story after publication to reflect that UPL is listed on two stock exchanges in India and not the New York Stock Exchange. We apologise for the error. 


Susan Comrie

Susan took an unconventional career path into investigative journalism. After studying graphic design and art direction, she joined the Daily Voice as a freelance entertainment writer before she eventually managed to persuade her various editors to let her write more in-depth, investigative features.

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