KARACHI, Pakistan -- Pakistani health officials say soybean dust from shipping containers, not a toxic gas leak, likely was responsible for the deaths of 14 people in a Karachi neighborhood this week.
Muhammad Umer Faran, a spokesman for Pakistan's Ministry of Maritime Affairs, on February 19 told RFE/RL that "it is suspected" that soybean dust that was spread while a shipment was being offloaded caused the deaths and injuries, although he added that the investigation is still under way and that a final determination is still to come.
Zafar Mahdi, a senior health official in Sindh Province, said that aeroallergen from soybean dust was found in blood samples collected from people who died after the suspected gas leak in the southern port city's Kamari area.
Hundreds of other people were stricken in the incident and rushed to hospitals complaining of breathing problems and burning eyes.
Authorities first suspected a toxic gas leak, with some people speculating that damage to a nuclear reactor in the city could have been to blame.
But Mahdi said that “soybean dust from shipping containers” that had recently been unloaded at the city's port on February 16 was responsible.
Seemin Jamali, a doctor at the city's Jinnah Hospital -- where most of the ill people were taken – said soybean dust can cause a severe allergic reaction and cause death for people with lung infections
The ship that was unloading soybeans reportedly imported from the United States has been removed from the terminal, but officials said the dangers created by the dust could take at least four days to clear.
Several dozen residents of the port area protested to demand an independent probe into the incident, with many blaming authorities for not doing enough to prevent the deaths.
Pakistan State Oil, the country’s largest oil marketer, said it was temporarily closing its storage terminal at the site to protect the health of its staff, adding that it would use backup facilities to help prevent fuel shortages.
Nasir Shah, the provincial information minister, on February 18 had said local officials had sought help from the Pakistani Navy's chemical and biological department to help determine the source of the leak.
Karachi is Pakistan's largest city, with numerous oil refineries situated nearby, along with a key naval installation.