While it is hardly as devastating as the disaster at Bhopal, India, in 1984, a fire at Bangkok's port complex has raised new and disturbing questions about the handling of toxic chemicals in Third World countries such as Thailand.
The Bangkok fire came at a time of mounting opposition in Asia, ranging from tiny south Pacific islands to populous newly industrialized countries, about the lucrative but potentially deadly trade in chemical wastes from the industrialized world, where the substances are subjected to far stricter controls.
The fire, like the Bhopal tragedy before, is a nightmare scenario feared by many environmentalists concerned about the lack of regulation for storing, transporting and using toxic chemicals in these countries. Pressure has been building in some countries not only for local laws, but for international control of toxic substances that have the potential for harming the environment and killing large numbers of people.
The lack of meaningful international regulation of toxic chemicals, environmentalists say, is illustrated by the ease with which unscrupulous Western companies have helped Iraq and Libya obtain the expertise and raw materials to establish poison gas facilities.
Officially, only five people died when the March 2 Bangkok fire--started by an immense explosion--spread through the Klong Toey port complex and a neighboring shantytown, destroying more than 600 homes.
But the real casualty toll may not be known for several months, because the explosion and fire ignited warehouses filled with poisonous chemicals, which then spewed for hours into the air over Bangkok and into its water system.
An immense cloud of smoke rose from the port during the fire, changing color from black to green to vivid red as different chemicals exploded. Residents miles away reported black soot covering their furniture. The wife of Gen. Sunthorn Kongsompong, the armed forces supreme commander, was overwhelmed by the fumes and passed out while touring the disaster scene days later.
Prateep Hata, head of a charity that works in the slums of Bangkok, estimated that 30,000 people have become ill since the incident, although the degree of sickness varied widely. In contrast, the release of poison gas at Union Carbide's Bhopal plant killed more than 3,000 people.
"For the first couple of days, the chemicals covered the community. But no one said anything officially about how these chemicals will affect people," Prateep said. "I am very upset at the large number of children who are sick--vomiting, with skin rashes and other signs of illness--and nothing is being done for them."
Dr. Pradit Charoenthaithawee, dean of Bangkok's Siriraj Medical College, said in an interview that tests carried out on residents of the slums adjacent to the port showed that 100% of those tested exhibited significantly higher than normal blood levels of the chemical bromide.
During the fire, 640 metal cylinders containing methyl bromide ignited or exploded. Pradit said the tests showed that 60% of those examined had more than 10 milligrams of bromide per 100 milliliters of blood, twice the established norm.
The doctor said his hospital was treating cases of severe stomach disorders, skin rashes, respiratory ailments and burning eyes believed to be associated with the release of bromide into the atmosphere.
Methyl bromide is just one of 23 toxic chemicals known to be stored at the port, frequently without any protective measures. The list includes paraformaldehyde and pesticides that form cyanide gas upon combustion.
Prateep noted that explosions were still occurring at the port more than two weeks after the fire. A container of about 250 gallons of liquid Freon was still sitting in the open sun, which reached 95 degrees at noontime, with a printed warning that it could explode at 55 degrees. The contents of other drums spilled onto the ground through gaping ruptures in the metal.
The continuing threat prompted the government to announce March 18 that army cleanup crews would be sent to burn off some toxic compounds and truck away the remainder. It also announced that 200 families would be relocated to new housing away from the contaminated area.
One thing that became evident in the aftermath of the Klong Toey fire was that port officials had little or no knowledge about what toxic chemicals were being stored at the facility. They said the contents of warehouses at the port were the legal concern of the Customs Department.
More important, the fire brought into the open a long concealed secret--that Bangkok has been serving as a de facto toxic waste dump by industrialized countries taking advantage of Thailand's sloppy chemical regulations.
According to shipping officials, some of the toxic chemicals had been shipped in containers to dummy corporations in Bangkok. Since the receiving party was non-existent, the chemicals simply went into permanent storage in the port--a cheap, if highly questionable way of getting rid of chemical wastes.
Drums of insecticides and other potentially poisonous agents were simply not recorded or monitored after arriving at the port. In fact, port regulations provide that no container can be opened for three months--plenty of time, according to health officials, for volatile chemicals to decompose or even explode.
"It has long been known that bogus companies were established to import so-called industrial chemicals, which really are unwanted industrial wastes which industrialized countries have problems in disposing," said Sompun Kritarak, a Bangkok toxicologist. "Klong Toey is like a dumping area."
Historically, Thailand has enforced almost no fire or safety regulations--movie theater exits are often locked during film showings and department stores have no sprinklers or fire escapes.
On Feb. 15, 127 people were killed when a burning cigarette ignited a truckload of explosives being hauled in southern Thailand.
With a military junta now running Thailand, there have been numerous calls for more stringent fire and chemical storage regulations. But previous efforts to enforce even existing laws have proved fruitless.