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FAO Press Release 02/16

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For more information contact Erwin Northoff, Media Relations Officer, tel: 0039 06 570 53105

Photos from the contaminated site in the harbour of Djibouti:

Photo 1

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Photo 3

Rome, 19 February - Ten leaking shipping containers of a toxic pesticide are creating serious human health and environmental problems in the port of Djibouti, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said today. The present location of the containers is already severely contaminated, according to FAO. The worst affected site is within 400 m of a food aid store.

FAO called for an immediate emergency intervention to avoid further contamination of the port and its workers. "The authorities in Djibouti should not be left alone with this problem," said FAO expert Kevin Helps, who was asked by the Djibouti Ministry of Agriculture to visit the site and make safeguard recommendations.

The pesticide chromated copper arsenate is primarily used as a wood preservative for power and telegraph poles, Helps said. The chemical is carcinogenous and dangerous to the environment.

Over 200 tonnes of the chemical were shipped recently from the UK to be delivered to the Ethiopian Power Corporation. The chemicals were packaged in plastic containers. "All previous shipments of this chemical have used steel drums for the product and no leakage occurred. It appears that the plastic containers have suffered a catastrophic failure resulting in leakage from the container," Helps said. "The containers must have started to leak while on the vessel."

"There is no danger to the entire port yet, but we are concerned about the current storage point. Liquid continues to leak from all the containers. An attempt to open one of the containers to inspect the cargo was stopped when liquid started to flow," Helps said.

Until recently the port authorities had not received information about the toxicity of the cargo and safety data. "There is no doubt that the incorrect handling of the chemical has exposed many workers to unacceptable levels of this toxic material," Helps said.

Port authorities have taken first steps to safeguard the contaminated areas, and the potential for the spread of contamination by dust or wind has been reduced.

As an immediate emergency intervention, FAO suggested setting the storage site as a quarantine area and placing guards to prevent access to the site. All further leakage should be contained to prevent further soil contamination. "Under no circumstances should the containers be opened until a specialist in dealing with hazardous waste with all necessary safety equipment is present at the site," Helps said. "The pesticides cannot be transported to Ethiopia without being repackaged."

"This work must be completed before the chemical is spread by rains. The chemical is highly soluble and very easily leached from soil. If the chemical were to be leached into the sea, the impact on the fish stocks would be very serious."

Highly contaminated material needs to be sent back to the UK, according to FAO. "Currently no suitable facilities exist in Africa for the safe disposal of this hazardous product. The final repackaging and decontamination will cost a minimum of US$800,000. The immediate emergency intervention will amount to US$35,000," Helps said.

FAO recommended that the State of Djibouti pursues a "polluter pays" approach. "The final liability for the cargo needs urgent clarification. The party responsible for the leakage and contamination needs to be identified and held responsible."

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