Lebanon faces health hazards as garbage crisis lingers
Beirut - With tons of untreated refuse improperly disposed of due to corruption and political paralysis, Lebanon’s seven-month garbage crisis is turning into an environmental and health disaster.
Mounds of rubbish continue to pile up in makeshift dumps in Beirut’s port area and Mount Lebanon.
Ali Chamaa, a resident of the Mount Lebanon town of Barja, tells an all-too-common tale of stopgap measure, saying: “The municipality is literally just throwing the trash into a nearby valley. Already, residents can smell the fumes and there is nothing being done to recycle.”
Joseph Saba, an environmental engineer, said: “The government and municipalities have yet to disclose how many informal dumps there are and their exact locations. None of these sites were prepared to accept mounds of trash, therefore toxins could be seeping into the ground.”
The Air Quality Associated Research Unit in Lebanon, formed in collaboration with the American University of Beirut, Notre Dame University and St Joseph University, issued a report in December warning of an unprecedented amount of carcinogens in Lebanon’s air since the garbage crisis.
According to the report, samples taken near burning garbage were 416 times more carcinogenic and carried carcinogens previously not found in Lebanon’s air.
Dr Elie Fares, a medical doctor and popular local blogger, warned that the fumes “will cause exacerbation of diseases in people with pulmonary ailments. Meaning if someone has previous pulmonary issues, the fumes can serve as triggers to his disease and lead to aggravations.”
Saba noted that the spread of disease, especially among children, is more worrisome. “For kids living near dumps, they have increased exposure to harmful toxins and viruses,” he said.
Although officials at the Ministry of Health insist there is no increase in illnesses compared to the last seven years, the Ministry of Agriculture pointed out the effect the crisis is having on farming.
“There is an increased number of insects resulting from the accumulated waste, especially during the snow season, and there is now a risk of crops getting diseases due to the fermentation of the waste,” a source at the ministry said on condition of anonymity.
Lebanon’s post-civil war environmental record has been a poor one, with virtually no recycling or conservation scheme implemented.
Beirut and Mount Lebanon’s trash, which amounted to 2,500 tonnes a day, was regularly sent to a sanitary landfill in the coastal town of Nehmeh, south of Beirut, until the middle of last year when it was closed under popular pressure. With no substitute area for disposal, garbage collection was halted and mountains of trash piled up on the streets.
Within weeks, civil society groups had mass demonstrations to demand a sustainable solution to the crisis.
The Lebanese government attempted to ease the situation by forming a crisis committee to resume limited pick-ups of trash, which was disposed in a disorganised way in makeshift dumps.
With the government haggling over a plan to export the refuse, a solution to the crisis seems a long way off, which portends more dire consequences.
Beside the significant increase in cancer risks, Lebanon’s water supply is threatened with contamination. According to Saba, the longer the trash stays, the higher the concentration of toxins seeping into artesian wells and aquifers.
“At higher altitudes trash covered in snow is not swept into the sea and thus stays longer. The melting snow, bit-by-bit carries the toxins into aquifers and rivers, which ultimately affects the drinking supply,” Saba warned.
“Any crops irrigated with such water could also carry E. coli bacteria and increase cases of food poisoning in crops that are eaten with the peel on, like tomatoes or cucumbers.”
Marine life was also at risk. “At lower altitudes, because of urbanisation, most of the water goes off into the sea, meaning garbage is being swept into our coastal waters and could harm marine life the longer it stays,” Saba said.