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Five dead, 6,000 Poisoned In Ivory Coast Toxic Waste Disaster

A civilian man walks past in Abidjan 09 September 2006 the toxic wast dumped in Akouedo. The number of people poisoned by highly toxic waste that was dumped on open-air sites in Abidjan by a foreign ship has risen from 1,500 to more than 5,000 people, the country's health ministry said on Saturday, drastically increasing the toll of those affected. AFP PHOTO/ ISSOUF SANOGO
by Staff Writers
Abidjan (AFP) Sep 09, 2006
Five people have died and more than 6,000 people have been poisoned by toxic chemicals that were dumped last month in open-air junk yards in Abidjan, Ivory Coast's health ministry said Sunday. The previous toll from the pollution scandal that came to light one week ago was three dead and 5,000 poisoned. The new deaths were of two men -- a detainee in a local prison and a 19-year-old youth.

The health ministry indicated that the number of people seeking medical treatment was falling, however.

"It appears that less people went to health centres yesterday than in previous days," health ministry spokesman Simeon N'Da said.

In his Sunday sermon, a priest in an upmarket city neighbourhood which has been badly hit by the pollution slammed those responsible, denouncing the "demonic behaviour of people who took the liberty of discharging these products".

Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbago was due to chair a meeting on Sunday of the emergency inter-ministerial committee, specially set up to fight the pollution, which has announced a plan to neutralise toxic fumes emanating from the waste.

A total of 538 tonnes of liquid waste was unloaded in August from a Panamanian-registered ship, according the port's manifest sheet, and dumped onto about 10 open-air sites in the commercial capital Abidjan, a city of four million people.

Environmental pressure group Greenpeace said the sludge was made up of 400 tonnes of oil refining waste, rich in organic matter and poisonous elements. The latter include hydrogen sulphide and organochloride, which cause nausea, rashes, fainting, diarrhoea and headaches.

The Greek company that owns the vessel, Prime Marine Management, confirmed the waste had been discharged but said the action was lawful.

The "Probo Koala" was chartered by a Netherlands-based company, which said an Ivorian firm had been entrusted with handling the unloaded waste.

The exact origin of the waste has not yet been established.

Ivory Coast's entire cabinet resigned on Wednesday over the poisoning scandal, which has triggered angry protests.

Prime Minister Charles Konan Banny, who has been asked to form a new government, has accused his disgraced administration of "negligence" and promised to punish those responsible.

Six French waste disposal experts arrived in Ivory Coast on Friday to help the skeleton administration locate all the sites where the toxic material was dumped, evaluate the environmental damage and decontaminate the sites.

The sludge has polluted nearby streams and pools and burnt the grass. But locals continued to grow tomatoes nearby, telling reporters they were now used to a smell described by one resident as "like gas mixed with garlic".

The scandal has added to the woes of this west African state, where a UN-brokered peace process has tried to end four years of political crisis touched off by a failed coup against President Laurent Ggabgo in 2002 that effectively split the country in two.

Ivory Coast In Emergency Plans To Counter Effects Of Toxic Waste
by Christophe Koffi and David Youant in Abidjan

Ivory Coast's skeleton government on Friday took measures to limit the polluting effects of highly toxic industrial waste which has killed three people and poisoned 1,500 since it was dumped in the economic capital Abijdan three weeks ago.

An inter-ministerial committee tasked with handling the crisis announced an emergency plan to neutralise toxic fumes from the waste, which was discharged onto open-air sites in the country's largest city last month by a Panamanian-registered ship.

"This product will be removed and transported to protected sites, which will be built very soon," Planning Minister Paul Bouhoun Bouabre promised.

He said the places where the waste has been dumped would be covered until proper dumping sites had been created.

The task force comprises 10 ministers maintained by Prime Minister Charles Konan Banny after the scandal forced his cabinet to resign on Wednesday.

"It smells like gas mixed with garlic. You cannot get used to it," said Aicha Ouattara, 37, whose shop is just 200 metres from one of the dump sites.

She said the strength of the emissions get worse when it rains.

"Yesterday it rained and the children were choking inside the house," she said, adding that asthmatic attacks had peaked in recent days.

A 70-year-old former customs officer, Martine Gnepe, said he was planning to move his 17-year-old pregnant daughter to prevent "the odour from deforming" her unborn baby.

"This is the Chernobyl story we read about in the newspapers," Gnepe said struggling for breath. He deplored the fact that no-one had been to the district to assist the poisoned residents.

Pacoume Kouame, who was selling newspapers during the summer holdays while waiting to return to university, said his entire family had evacuated the Platea-Dokui district of Abidjan.

Despite wearing a face mask for protection, he said he still suffered from headaches, skin irritations and stomach aches, and had to use the toilet more frequent than before.

"We are dying here and they talk about resignation," complained another student, Jean-Jacques Bitty Koko, who entered Kouame's shop with a face mask covering three quarters of his face.

"We listen to the word of God. It is all that remains for us to do," Kouame sighed, tuning his portable radio to a Catholic radio station.

Minister Bouabre admitted the toxic waste scandal was a "national catastrophe".

"We all are concerned because the population of Abidjan accounts for practically one third of the population of Ivory Coast," he said.

Clearing the waste was a matter of "urgency", he added.

International experts were heading to the west African country on Friday to help the troubled government cope with the environmental disaster.

The latter has declared the creation of an emergency fund.

Environemntal pressure group Greenpeace has said 400 tonnes of oil refining waste, rich in organic matter and very toxic elements, were dumped in Abidjan.

The waste was dumped at about 10 open-air sites across the city of four million people.

The government, which has not released many details about the waste, said fears that it contained radioactive material have been allayed after tests were conducted.

The deadly waste was unloaded from the Panamanian-registered "Probo Koala", which docked in Abidjan on August 19.

It contains hydrogen sulphide and organochloride. Both are poisonous and can cause nausea, rashes, fainting, diarrhoea and headaches.

The Greek company that owns the vessel, Prime Marine Management, confirmed the waste had been discharged but said the action was lawful.

Source: Agence France-Presse

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