Report reveals “very toxic" chemicals are poisoning Durban rivers and beaches

Report reveals “very toxic" chemicals are 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”.

Further investigation reveals the following: “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: Here it is: The toxic stockpile of chemicals in torched United Phosphorus Limited Durban warehouse.

He answers the questions that matter including, "Could the damage have been avoided?" 

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

Unfortunately, the UPL refuses to disclose what poisoned Durban's environment, including rivers, beaches, and the air, following the fires caused by the unrest in KZN last month. These are chemicals with descriptions like ‘may damage the unborn child’. The seriousness of these lethal chemicals deserve transparency as they threaten our environment, therefore the lives of those in it.

LISTEN: Cornubia chemical factory blaze extinguished, cleanup underway

It is not yet identified whether UPL’s warehouse was intentionally sabotaged or fell victim of the looting of their neighbour, Makro. But on Tuesday, 13 July, a fire exploded, blowing up the warehouse and, with it, the sprinkler system.

According to AmaBhungane, this birthed 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. 

Fortunately, the investigative journalism paper has shared some of the deadly findings.

READ MORE: Specialists dispatched to torched Durban chemical plant

 The following was shared by AmaBhungane after they accessed the inventory:

  • 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 of all these. They shared: “It is not known at this stage what proportion of any pollution may be from the warehouse or other sources,” it 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). 

amaBhungane share that among the seven chemicals they accounted for by name was 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 July 19 2021 was be the final 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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