Firefighters exposed to Durban chemical fire had to undergo health assessment

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  • The chemical fire at UPL Warehouse in Cornubia, Durban has left untold environmental damage to the area.
  • Government says permission to store certain chemicals did not happen.
  • Firefighters working on the fire have had to undergo occupational assessments because they unknowingly tackled the blaze without the correct PPE.

The nine days it took to put out a deadly chemical fire at the UPL Warehouse has left untold damage to the environment in the Cornubia, Umhlanga and surrounding areas.

A team of environmental specialists including officials from government, undertook a site visit to the warehouse yesterday after it was set alight during the height of the unrest between 12 and 13 July.

In a press briefing on Friday afternoon, Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs (EDTEA) chief director for environmental management Sphume Nowele said that water used to put out the fire ended up contaminating local bodies of water.

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"The large volumes of water used to extinguish the fire had led to the plant’s containment system being overwhelmed. This led to the contaminated water spilling into the Umhlangana stream below. The contaminated water also made its way into the Umhlanga River and to the estuary."

The pollution also severely affected marine life with scores of fish including crayfish, swordfish and crab.

No major hazard installation

Senior manager for pollution control in eThekwini Metro, Bruce Dale, said there was also no Major Hazard Installation (MHI). In occupational health terms, an MHI ensures the quantity of any substance that has the potential to cause a major incident is kept.

"Unfortunately, it does not appear there was any Major Hazard Installation application made and unfortunately local government, we are not aware and it was not brought to our attention that there was a storage facility there.

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"If it was brought to our attention, we know there are sensitive receptors downstream including the sea, estuary and shopping centres. Unfortunately, we are not aware of any MHI application otherwise they would have brought it to the attention of the municipality and we would have had to look at mitigation measures to prevent any explosions or impact on the environment in terms of air quality and water quality impacts."

Firefighters to be assessed

Dale said firefighters who attended the scene have had to go for occupational assessments because they were not prepared for the nature of the blaze.

"They did manage to get in, but they were aware of what they have been dealing with those 1 600 odd chemicals. They did not have the correct PPE at that stage. They have subsequently gone for occupational health assessment just to ensure the fireman haven't been impacted on.

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"There was a problem initially getting into the facility. It was early morning on 13 July that they got to the fire. There have been reports that because of the number of fires that evening, it did take some time to get to the site."

Health impact

Nowele said there had been "numerous complaints" through emergency services regarding air quality.

"Residents have been advised to seek medical attention at their local clinic and private facilities as deemed necessary. Several media alerts were circulated on all social platforms advising on public health measures to be taken by members of the affected communities."

The local community in Blackburn informal settlement have also been impacted.

"Adjacent Blackburn community were advised by means of posters and pamphlets of the dangers of using contaminated water for bathing, swimming and any other purposes," said Nowele.

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