Toxic dumping health-scare over

Rows of empty plastic chairs at the toxic waste emergency centre at Cocody hospital are a reminder of the hysteria that swept through Cote d’Ivoire’s main city earlier this month, when tens of thousands of people lined up at hospitals and clinics complaining of illnesses caused by toxic sludge dumped in the city.

"There are less people so we now close in the afternoon and focus on our regular patients again," said a doctor at Cocody hospital who declined to give his name.

The number of people seeking help has dwindled to about a hundred a day, compared with more than a thousand two weeks ago, health ministry data shows.

Abidjan residents panicked earlier this month when local media reported that five people had died after coming into contact with waste dumped from a Dutch-chartered ship.

Although eight deaths were finally attributed to the hazardous waste, autopsies have not been performed on the bodies to prove the cause of death.

Some 80,000 people flooded hospitals and clinics in Abidjan in September, according to the health ministry.

It remains unclear how many patients returned more than once or sought help for ailments unrelated to the toxic dumping, since the government provided free medicines to any resident complaining of health problems caused by the fumes.

The foul-smelling substance was shipped to Abidjan last month in an oil tanker chartered by the Netherlands-based commodities trader Trafigura Beheer BV, and was dumped across the city by a local contractor.

The black sludge was discovered at 18 different open-air sites, ranging from ditches and roads to the main garbage dump where hundreds of scavengers live and work, according to a team of experts from the UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination Mission (UNDAC).

The main chemicals found in the hazardous waste were hydrogen sulfide, mercaptans, phenols and hydrocarbons, according to the UNDAC mission report published Wednesday.

After the dumping, the waste probably released fumes "in serious or life-threatening concentrations", the report said. UNDAC has stressed that the threat posed by the waste is over, so long as residents do not touch or eat the sludge.

However, Trafigura Beheer BV said in a statement this week the cargo of the ship contained little or no toxicity as a company analysis of the substance showed that "hydrogen sulphide was not detected in the chemical slops".

"Trafigura does not accept it has acted improperly in any way," the statement added.

Two French executives of Trafigura were arrested on charges of poisoning and breaking toxic waste laws while on a mission in Cote d'Ivoire last week. They are being held in jail along with several Ivorian government officials and the owners of a company responsible for discharging the waste.

Other high-ranking officials appeared before parliament this week to give testimony in public hearings broadcast live on state television, including the suspended director of customs and the director of the Abidjan port. All the men pleaded not guilty.

But former transportation minister Innocent Kobenan Anaky, who was heavily beaten by protestors who accused him of involvement in the scandal, suggested the port and district authorities should be held responsible for the dumping.

pb/nr/cs