IMAGE: DUMP SITE CLOSED DUE TO TOXIC SLUDGE
Kambou Sia  /  AFP - Getty Images
A spill responder eyes a dump site in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, that was closed off after toxic sludge was found there.
updated 9/13/2006 11:56:04 AM ET 2006-09-13T15:56:04

Six people died and thousands have sought treatment after foul-smelling toxic sludge from a ship found its way into garbage dumps around the capital, according to Ivory Coast's health ministry.

Some 9,000 people have reported to health facilities in the weeks since the material was apparently illegally dumped around Abidjan, with 19 people requiring hospitalization, said Jean Denoman, a ministry spokesman.

The deaths  are blamed on exposure to the material, he said, without giving details. Officials at one hospital said one person died of lung infections after breathing in the fumes.

Abidjan residents began complaining of a stench in recent weeks and Trafigura Beheer B.V., a Dutch-based commodities company, said a local contractor may have improperly disposed of a byproduct from a fuel shipment sent to the West African nation.

Among the chemicals in the residue was hydrogen sulfide, which in concentrated doses can kill humans but when diffused gives off the odor of matches or rotten eggs, according to an Ivorian government health report.

The company has denied wrongdoing and said the waste from the ship Probo Koala, a gasoline tanker, was the remnants from cleaning the tanks after a shipment.

"There was carelessness in the handling of the waste, despite the company's disclosure to the authorities about its contents and a written request ... that the waste would be processed according to the laws of the land," the company said.

Protests undo government
The black substance was discovered by residents, who took to the streets last week to complain about persistent health problems and a pervading smell of rotten eggs near their homes.

IMAGE: DOWNTOWN ABIDJAN
Kambou Sia  /  AFP - Getty Images
Downtown Abidjan has been the scene of protests over the toxic sludge.
Mounting public anger over the dumping resulted in the resignation of a postwar, power-sharing government last week. Prime Minister Charles Konan Banny, who remains in office, was expected to announce a new cabinet by the end of this week.

However, the main opposition parties say they will not participate in the new government until those responsible for the dumping have been detained.

Several countries have sent experts to Ivory Coast to analyze the waste and decide how it can be removed.

Former colonial power France sent a team of scientists over the weekend, while experts from the United Nations arrived in Abidjan on Monday.

The foul-smelling odor was easing in most sites where the substance had been dumped, but health officials said the city hospitals were faced with thousands of people complaining of nausea, headaches, and respiratory problems.

800 patients in one hospital
Medical staff at a toxic waste emergency center at a hospital in central Abidjan said they had received nearly 800 patients Tuesday, and hundreds more were expected to arrive over the coming days.

"All our hospital staff has been mobilized to deal with this problem," said Elise Kouadio, a doctor at the facility. "We don't have time to do anything else."

"People get treated, but they fall sick again when they return home because they have nowhere else to go," she said.

The waste has been discovered at 11 open-air sites including the main garbage dump, but Health Minister Remi Allah Kouadio warned Monday that more sites could still be found.

Residents have blocked access to the main garbage disposal site with makeshift roadblocks and hastily built brick walls, causing fast-growing heaps of uncollected household garbage across the city.

Authorities have arrested seven people in connection with the dumping, including three customs officials and a high-ranking official at the Transport Ministry, according to local news reports.

Scores of gasoline stations in Abidjan were closed Tuesday due to a gasoline shortage caused by a strike of customs officials at the main port in protest over the arrest of their colleagues.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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