Report reveals UPL's “very toxic" chemicals poisoning Durban rivers and beaches

Report reveals UPL's “very toxic" chemicals poisoning Durban rivers and beaches

It was revealed that a chemical warehouse was burnt down during the KZN unrest after marine life started washing up ashore. The effects have been devastating, but do we know what was in the warehouse? 


The amaBhungane investigative journalists have shared a detailed report about the world's largest chemical company, United Phosphorus Limited. Their investigation has confirmed that UPL's warehouse held millions of litres of chemicals - some classified as “harmful”, “toxic” or “very toxic”. UPL refuses to disclose what poisoned Durban's environment, the rivers, beaches, and the air, following the fires caused by the unrest in KZN last month. 

Further investigation revealed that “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.” 

We were joined by the co-author of the AmaBhungane article, Dewald Van Rensburg. He shared some of the shocking revelations that were revealed during the investigation.

You can listen to the full interview with amaBhungane below or read more about the interview, too.

LISTEN: Cornubia chemical factory blaze extinguished, cleanup underway

It has not yet been identified whether UPL’s warehouse was intentionally sabotaged or if it was a part of the looting of the neighbouring retailer, Makro. 

On Tuesday, 13 July, an explosion blew up the warehouse, and with it, the sprinkler systems. According to amaBhungane, this resulted in two problems; toxic smoke from the fire and a mass chemical spill as water used to fight the fire flowed down the hill, into a wetland and into the Ohlanga river. 

READ MORE: Specialists dispatched to torched Durban chemical plant

The investigative journalism outlet has shared some of the deadly findings and it's incredibly concerning.

 According to amaBhungane, the inventory at the warehouse included the following at the time of the explosion:

  • 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, 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 methyl arsonate, 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 the “extremely flammable” fungicide tebuconazole.
  • 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 found within UPL’s inventory. There are over 700 line items on the list, including insecticides, herbicides, fungicides and rodenticides. 

READ MORE: Durban chemical spill: Residents must not pick up dead fish

In its press release, UPL avoided taking responsibility for all the allegations. 

“It is not known at this stage what proportion of any pollution may be from the warehouse or other sources,” UPL said.

They were then forced to admit that they were responsible for the choking fumes emanating from the warehouse and the contaminated water flowing down the river(s). 

Notably, amaBhungane has also stated that among the seven chemicals included alpha-cypermethrin. This is an insecticide classified as “very toxic to aquatic life”, “toxic if swallowed”, and “may cause damage to organs through prolonged or repeated exposure”, according to the European Chemical Agency.

This press release on Monday 19 July 2021 was the last time UPL would publicly disclose any of the chemicals stored in its warehouse. 

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Main Image Courtesy: @ALLRISlegal

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