GENEVA Tens of thousands of people in Ivory Coast are still suffering serious health problems two years after toxic waste was dumped there, a United Nations human rights expert said on Friday.
Okechukwu Ibeanu, an independent U.N. investigator, said in a statement the seven sites around the commercial capital Abidjan had still not been decontaminated, with dire consequences for those living around them.
"Victims whom I have met with continue to complain of headaches, skin lesions, nose, throat and lung problems as well as digestive problems," he said at the conclusion of a six-day trip to Ivory Coast.
"I am very concerned about the situation especially for women, who have complained of an increase in premature births, early menopause and miscarriages since the dumping occurred."
The Nigerian political science professor said many people were forced to abandon their homes and businesses after the August 2006 dumping, in which chemical slop was offloaded from a ship in open-air sites around Abidjan.
At least 16 people died and thousands were poisoned.
Some have since returned to live and work near the sites because they lack the means to relocate elsewhere, Ibeanu said, calling on the government to act quickly to compensate victims and monitor the dump sites for lingering risks.
People living in affected areas should also be checked and treated for health problems related to the toxins, he said, noting that many victims are unable to afford medical care.
"The people of Abidjan need urgent assistance. After two years, they continue to live in precarious conditions and their right to a healthy and safe environment continues to be violated," he said.
"Some of the victims I met are the most vulnerable, without enough money to eat, let alone pay for expensive medical bills."
Ibeanu will travel later this year to the Netherlands, where the Probo Koala ship began its journey from Amsterdam, to speak with various stakeholders including executives from the oil trading firm Trafigura which chartered the vessel.
"I hope to be able to get a more comprehensive view of what happened and ascertain responsibility," he said.
Trafigura has agreed to pay a $198 million settlement to the Ivory Coast government but denies responsibility for the dumping or any wrongdoing. Dutch prosecutors said in February they would file criminal charges against the company, and an Ivorian court threw out a case against Trafigura in March.
Ibeanu said the Ivorian government should intensify its pursuit of pending criminal proceedings against people and companies implicated in the disaster.
"This is to send a signal to other transnational corporations and individuals that such crimes will not go unpunished and that Africa is not a cheap dumping ground."
(Editing by Stephanie Nebehay and Mary Gabriel)