The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) is investigating reports that toxic waste dumped last month around Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire’s biggest city, and already linked to the deaths of at least three people, may have been illegally exported from Europe.
Aside from the three reported deaths, about 3,000 others have sought medical help after inhaling fumes from the hazardous substances, stating they are suffering from intestinal and respiratory problems, as well as vomiting, nausea and nose bleeds, according to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
The exact nature of the substances have not yet been determined, but OCHA quoted “various sources” saying they were dumped at a number of sites around Abidjan – including the city’s lagoon and its sewage system – from a vessel, Probo Koala, on 19 August.
Following a formal request from the Ivorian Government, UNEP said it would conduct an investigation through the Secretariat of the Basel Convention on the Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal, which it administers.
The Secretariat is probing whether the Basel Convention’s trust fund can be used to help pay for the clean-up operation, which could cost more than $13 million. It is also studying where legal responsibility for the crisis may lie.
UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said “the disaster in Abidjan is a particularly painful illustration of the human suffering caused by the illegal dumping of wastes.”
He warned that as global trade flows expand and tough domestic controls raise the costs of hazardous wastes disposal in developed countries, “the opportunities and incentives for illegal trafficking of wastes will continue to grow.”
An inter-agency UN taskforce has been established to coordinate the response of UN agencies operating in the West African country.
Under the Basel Convention, any nation exporting hazardous waste must obtain prior written permission from the importing country, as well as a permit detailing the contents and destination of the waste. If the waste has been transferred illegally, the exporter is obliged to take back the waste and pay the costs of any damages and clean-up process.
European Union (EU) laws implementing the Basel Convention also prohibit all exports of toxic wastes from a member State to a developing country.