Health and toxicology experts on Friday said the chemical endosulfan, which was reported to have been part of the MV Princess of the Stars' cargo shipment when it sank off the coast of Sibuyan Island, Romblon last week at the height of typhoon Frank (international codename Fengshen), is "highly toxic" to both humans and marine life.
Endosulfan is a pesticide which causes pink discolorations on the crop. Due to its highly toxic nature, only large pineapple plantations, such as Del Monte and Dole, are allowed to use the chemical in the country.
Toxicologist Dr. Lyn Panganiban of the University of the Philippines said direct contact or exposure to the substance is highly dangerous, since only 0.8 to 8 milligrams of the substance, if ingested, could cause death.
Symptoms of endosulfan poisoning include headaches, dizziness, chills, convulsions, nausea, and possible irregular heartbeat, since the chemical targets the central nervous system of the victim.
Once the victim shows signs of endosulfan poisoning, the person should be rushed to the hospital immediately to undergo supportive measures to help the person's body flush out the toxin naturally, according to Dr. Eric Tayag of the Department of Health's (DOH) National Epidemiology Center.
There is no known antidote for endosulfan poisoning, Panganiban added.
Meanwhile, if there is indirect contact with the substance - such as inhalation or contact with an object or person that came into contact with the chemical - the symptoms might not be manifested immediately.
This could also cause more complications, because if the chemical is accumulated inside the body it could cause endocrine disruption, and could possibly cause sterility and liver cancer, Panganiban said.
Tayag said that people who had skin contact with the chemical should immediately take a bath for 20 minutes using an alkaline soap to remove the chemical from the skin.
Global elimination considered by UN body
If the chemical is highly toxic to humans, its effects on marine life is greater, according to Panganiban.
One drop of the said chemical in water triples the effect on marine life, and could cause fishkills and death of other marine species if the chemical spreads.
Initial test of the waters around the ship so far showed no traces of contamination of endosulfan, but authorities are taking extra measures to avoid people coming into contact with the chemical.
Divers who participated in the search and retrieval operations inside the shipwreck will undergo medical examinations to check if they have been exposed to the chemical or not.
The United States' Environmental Protection Agency classifies it as highly toxic, and environmental activist group Greenpeace said the chemical is being considered for global elimination under the United Nations Convention on Persistent Organic Polllutants (Stockholm Convention) to which the Philippines is a signatory. The pesticide however is reportedly used in the United States and India.
Task Force Princess of the Stars was told by the Fertilizer and Pesticides Authority (FPA) on Thursday that the toxic cargo was bound for a Del Monte plantation in the southern Philippines.
Sulpicio Lines, already under fire for allowing the ferry to sail when a typhoon had hit the archipelago, said it did not know about the cargo.
"We were not aware of any pesticide on board," said Ryan Go, a company executive.
According to officials, Del Monte wrote to the Fertilizer and Pesticides Authority (FPA) on Tuesday about the shipment. The FPA did not alert the inter-agency task force dealing with the ferry disaster till Thursday.
Vice-President Noli de Castro said had the ferry disaster task force been told earlier about the toxic cargo, divers would not have been sent to the vessel in search of bodies.
"This should not even be aboard a passenger ship," de Castro said at a news conference.
The police sealed off the area around the capsized vessel and banned fishing in the waters off Sibuyan island.
"We will be affected badly. This makes us even worse off," said Juanito Reyes, a local fisherman.
Disaster officials said the removal of the pesticide would only start at the weekend because special protective diving gear needs to be obtained from Singapore.
Extracting the container safely will be difficult. The stern of the seven-storey ship is resting on the edge of a reef with only the tip of its bow visible from shore. There is also around 100,000 liters of fuel still on board. With reports from Sheryll Mundo, ABS-CBN News and Reuters