In Depth

Mystery illness kills 14 in Pakistan - but what caused it?

Authorities’ conflicting explanations fuel speculation of a cover-up

Authorities in Pakistan are working to determine the cause of 14 deaths in Karachi, with officials so far giving differing explanations.

At least 500 people have reported falling sick, with symptoms such as chest pains, breathing difficulties and burning eyes. Many are hospitalised and in a critical condition.

Some officials have cited a gas leak in Keamari, close to Karachi’s main port, as a possible cause of the deaths and illness. But Pakistan’s federal minister for maritime affairs, Ali Haider Zaidi, said on Monday that business at the port was continuing as usual.

But the conflicting explanations given by local and national authorities have fuelled speculation of a cover-up, and led to criticism of officials.

“The whole episode goes to show that Pakistan has still a long way to go in disaster and crisis management,” Omar R. Quraishi, a Karachi-based journalist, told The New York Times. “Three days have passed and the gas hasn’t been officially identified, the source not officially disclosed, let alone plugged.”

Residents and traders staged a protest on Tuesday over the authorities’ failure to detect the cause of the problem.

So what are the possible explanations?

A gas leak

The most widely touted explanation is that the illnesses and deaths were caused by a gas leak that started on Sunday evening in Keamari, a coastal neighbourhood near the port of Karachi.

Officials at both the province’s chemical science laboratory and Karachi Port Trust believe the widespread illnesses could be the result of a release of methyl bromide, the chemical used in the fumigation of large vessels at the port, says the NYT.

But Jamil Akhtar, the chairman of the Karachi Port Trust, then denied the problem originated at the port. Speaking to local media outlets, Akhtar said: “All terminals and berths have been checked. Even private terminals, the oil piers, oil installation areas have been checked. No gas or chemical leakage. If there was a gas leak at the port the first affected would have been the people who work near the court,” CNN reports.

Soybean dust

Some officials said they believed the deaths and illnesses were caused by soybean dust, spread during its unloading from a docked ship, causing allergic reactions.

A health advisory issued by the provincial government said: “As per observations of experts and ICCBS [International Center for Chemical and Biological Sciences] report it is a form of severe allergy which causes severe asthma attack in persons who come into direct contact with soya dust.”

Unloading of soybeans at Karachi port was stopped on Wednesday morning after the ICCBS report said that an aeroallergen from soybean dust was found in the blood samples collected from the deceased, reports Geo Pakistan.

"Preliminary report has been submitted by experts at Khi Uni which suggests that Keamari incident happened due to overexposure of soybean dust which is known to have also caused similar incidents in other parts of the world,” said Senator Murtaza Wahab. “This soybean is in a shipment docked at Khi Port,” he said.

Oil installation

The Environmental Protection Agency of Sindh Province said it suspects residents’ reactions were caused by hydrogen sulphide gas emissions from the oil installation at the port.

Officials had suspected the poisonings were down to hydrogen sulphide – a highly poisonous gas that is a byproduct of crude oil and also generated in the sewerage system, says Pakistan’s The News.

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