A United Nations health team has flown to Côte d’Ivoire to help the authorities deal with an environmental emergency in the West African country’s largest city following the dumping of toxic chemical waste that has already killed seven people and sent over 44,000 others in search of medical care.
The UN World Health Organization (WHO) said a clinical toxicologist assessing the severity and extent of ill health around Abidjan, a city of 5 million. An environmental health specialist and an emergency operations manager were already in the field while a further technical specialist will join the team shortly.
The emergency has overwhelmed Côte d’Ivoire’s health system. Due to the massive influx of people consulting medical facilities, the existing stocks of medicines and diagnostic materials have been exhausted. WHO has been able to replenish some stocks but more funds are needed to purchase additional drugs.
The UN team is being supported by additional chemical, food safety, water, sanitation and crisis management specialists at WHO headquarters in Geneva and by the agency’s Regional Office for Africa.
WHO has sent personal protection equipment and toxicological information and is collaborating with other UN agencies and international teams.
The crisis began last month when a ship unloaded some 500 tonnes of petrochemical waste into a number of trucks which then dumped it in at least 15 sites around the city. The waste contained a mixture of petroleum distillates, hydrogen sulphide, mercaptans, phenolic compounds and sodium hydroxide.
A few days later, thousands of people started complaining of ill health and seeking medical help. Clean-up of the waste has now started but it is anticipated that this will take about six weeks.
Symptoms have included nosebleeds, nausea and vomiting, headaches, skin and eye irritation and respiratory symptoms. According to physicians on duty during the first days after the waste was dumped, the most severely affected patients presented respiratory distress, dehydration and intestinal bleeding.
Many people are also seeking medical advice because they are anxious about the potential long-term consequences on their health and that of their children.