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Something In the Air? 14 Dead, 500 Sick in Pakistan

Officials have blamed gas leak, soybean dust
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 19, 2020 9:44 AM CST

(Newser) – At least 14 people have died and another 500 have fallen ill in Pakistan's largest city and chief commercial hub, where there are reports of a possible gas leak. Officials have offered conflicting reasons for ailments including chest pains, breathing impairments, and burning eyes, which have left many in critical condition in the southern port city of Karachi, reports the New York Times. Some officials suggest soybean dust spread through the air, causing allergic reactions, as it was unloaded from a ship. But others blame a suspected gas leak in the seaside community of Kemari (variously spelled), where all affected people reside, per the AP. Schools and factories have been closed, while operations have been suspended at a nearby oil terminal, where the Environmental Protection Agency of Sindh Province suspects hydrogen sulfide gas has been leaking.

But Karachi Port Trust Chairman Jamil Akhtar says "all terminals and berths have been checked" and there's no sign of a gas or chemical leak, per CNN. The fact that the trust and the province's chemical science lab have cited emissions of methyl bromide, used to fumigate cargo, has only added to the confusion. Area residents held a protest Tuesday over the government's apparent inability to get a handle on the issue, which began Sunday night. One man tells the AP he first had sore eyes. Then "my heart started beating suddenly very, very fast." Both he and his son were treated at a hospital. But "three days have passed and the gas hasn't been officially identified, the source not officially disclosed, let alone plugged," journalist Omar R. Quraishi tells the Times, which describes rumors of a cover-up. Autopsy reports are expected within 72 hours. (Read more Pakistan stories.)

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