Toxic Cloud over Buenos Aires

Overall, I have been quite fortunate throughout my international travels with both timing and safety concerns and have also benefited from the “travel mercies” received from a prayer chain organized by my Mother’s church. Good fortune prevailed once again in the timing of my recent departure from Buenos Aires. Just the day before leaving I had arrived at the central port on the Rio de la Plata aboard a ferry from Uruguay and then departed on Tuesday, December 4th, arriving in the USA on Wednesday December 5th. Safely home again, along with my usual jet lag, unable to sleep, I turned to my computer in the early morning hours and found startling news of a toxic event in the Argentine capital on Thursday, December 6th.

In a scene worthy of a disaster film, a shipping container docked at the central port’s terminal four had apparently either exploded or caught fire. The resulting billow of smoke diffused out into the city, whose name means “good air”, in the form of a foul smelling, sulfurous yellow smog extending to a distance of at least 15 kilometers (about 9 miles). An emergency alert advised an alarmed populace to remain indoors, close windows and doors and turn off air conditioning in an already uncomfortably hot and humid morning. Areas within a 20 block radius of the port were evacuated amidst this area’s legendary nightmare of noise and traffic congestion. While many were taken to soon overwhelmed hospitals, many others, struggling to concoct makeshift masks with scarves and other material, were also suffering from eye irritation, nausea and vomiting, and complaining of respiratory difficulties.

Appearing in a hazmat suit, Security Minister Sergio Berni assured the public that the container contained a phosphorous-based pesticide of “low toxicity”, especially since it was so diluted. This is a less than re-assuring pronouncement from someone wearing full-out hazardous material protective gear. Nevertheless, his message seems to be derived from a nearly universal formula for officials withholding information vital to public health out of concern “to avoid panic”. According to the Ministry of Health, the technical name of the offending pesticide is Thiodicarb, made in China, and this particular shipment was on its way to Paraguay. At the time of the toxic dispersion this container was being held in a section of the river port reserved for hazardous cargo. There are further reports alleging that there are 35 containers holding the same chemical remaining in that location. (Jonathan Gilbert, U.K. Telegraph,12/06/2012 )

Minister Berni’s assessment of Thiodicarb’s “low toxicity” remains open to question. According to Bayer Crop Science, this product contains a petroleum distillate moderately to highly toxic to fish and other aquatic life in lakes, streams or ponds. This is especially unfortunate given that the accident occurred along the Rio de la Plata which runs along the border between Argentina and Uruguay. Thiodicarb also contains Endosulfan, (Hexachlorohexahydro methano-2,4,3-benzodioxanthiepin oxide) which may impact the central nervous system. Symptoms of poisoning include nausea, vomiting, headache, general malaise, and breathing problems. Children and pets are especially vulnerable. Bayer’s first aid advice includes calling a doctor or a poison control center immediately, rinsing the eyes for 15-20 minutes, and removing contact lenses. Contaminated clothing should be removed and laundered and leather shoes discarded. Hair and skin surfaces should be immediately rinsed with plenty of water for 15-20 minutes and those who have inhaled Thiodicarb should be immediately removed to fresh air and given artificial respiration if necessary. ( )

The ongoing possibility for events such as this is yet another reason to travel with a highly effective respiratory mask and keep extras in your vehicle for oneself and passengers. Ever since Fukushima Daiichi ‘s nuclear disaster, I have taken the advice of environmental reporter Michael Collins ( ) a weekly contributor to, and brought along my Nano-Mask with disposable filters for air travel. As he and many others say, the jet stream in the northern hemisphere is ongoingly and increasingly radioactive. My husband tests these filters with our Geiger counter when I return and results so far have registered at least double background levels of radiation. Nano-masks are available from In areas where they are not available, avian flu masks offer an alternative. In the case of air borne radiation, chemicals, and other toxins, flimsy paper masks provide little protection..

December 7th brought further mayhem to Buenos Aires in the form a torrential downpour. An intense rainfall delivered the worst flooding in over half a century. There were power outages, and the city’s transport network was nearly at a standstill and much of the city’s financial and commercial activities were suspended. Nothing to worry about however, authorities assured everyone that “everything is under control”. (Russian Television, 12/07/2012).

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