Will new landfills create a crisis for locals’ health

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BEIRUT: Lebanon’s trash crisis was believed to have come to an end after the government approved a plan to establish two sanitary landfills, but there are increasing concerns about the health effects this scheme would have on people living around the designated sites. Even with the Costa Brava landfill south of Beirut just in the works, nearby residents are complaining of the effect of the piled garbage on their health.

From now until the site is ready to receive trash, bailed garbage is being gathered in an adjacent parking space. A fisherman in Ouzai who fishes off the shores of Costa Brava told The Daily Star that the mounting garbage had already had a negative impact on his only means of earning a living.

“In my 30 years in this trade, this year has been the worst. Even after the July War [in 2006], and the oil spill, it was not this bad,” he said, requesting to remain anonymous.

He claimed that he could hardly catch more than 5-10 kg a day, “I hardly catch big fish anymore. ... People are generally more sick.”

The fisherman added that people living in Ouzai were catching a flu that would last for weeks, sometimes even months, and having breathing problems. “[We] even hear about people getting huge bites from tiny mosquitos that last for weeks and even though [we] try to use bug repellants, nothing works.”

A farmer in the Naameh region, where a huge landfill that operated for nearly two decades was permanently closed last month, told The Daily Star that the stench from the dump tended to peak at night and in the early hours of the morning. Although it has decreased in intensity since last summer, “it is still hard to breathe sometimes.” The onslaught of small bugs and mosquitoes has affected the plants and the farmers.

“We do not feel the bite, but we [feel it] once we start itching [erratically]. We do not always see the bugs on the trees or fruits but we know they are there when the trees start to turn yellow,” one local said, requesting to remain anonymous.

A beekeeper from the same plantation recalled his experience over the last year after losing his beehives to the changing conditions and his teeth to oral cancer. He is not only recovering from his ordeal but a financial burden too, as he is indebted by outstanding medical bills.

Research backs up the claim that living near landfills can be bad for your health. A recent study published by the International Journal of Epidemiology in May of this year looked at people living within 5 kilometers of landfills in the Lazio region of central Italy over a span of 17 years. It found an association between exposure to hydrogen sulfide, a common air pollutant from dumps, and deaths and hospital visits due to lung cancer and respiratory diseases. The researchers guessed that other chemicals emitted alongside the hydrogen sulfide were also to blame. One key finding was that it doesn’t just matter how far you live from a landfill, because air currents and geography also determine where pollutants go and in what concentrations.

According to a 2014 report on Lebanon’s solid waste management by the German development aid agency GIZ, municipal solid waste generation in urban areas increases at 1.65 percent per year, and of the 2.04 million tons annually, 48 percent winds up in landfills whereas 29 percent is openly dumped. Of the undisclosed number of landfills, two were planned and three are constructed and operational.

Out of 188,850 tons of industrial waste annually, 60 percent is treated by way of shredding, autoclaving and incineration – including hospital waste. Solid waste management usually costs $50-$60 per ton, whereas Lebanon is paying $130 per ton. International and local experts suggest that government transparency and competency are further stalling the rehabilitation and restructuring of questionable infrastructure, public environmental awareness and socioeconomic development. According to various studies by international agencies like the World Bank and U.N. Development Program, these shortcomings are not only taxing on public health and the environment, but businesses and operations in the private and public sectors as well.

Health Minister Wael Abu Faour, Environment Minister Mohammad Machnouk and Agriculture Minister Akram Chehayeb, who helped deal with the trash crisis, could not be reached for comment.

The Daily Star was referred to Dr. Salah Zeineddine by the Health Ministry. He is the associate dean for Graduate Medical Education at the American University of Beirut and one of the members of the Emergency Health Committee for the ministry that compiled and presented the Emergency Health Contingency Plan last year.

According to Zeineddine, the Committee’s task was to assess the impact of the trash crisis on public health, water and ultimately come up with a plan of action to deter an epidemic. The study found that people with respiratory problems were at greater risk of infection from the fumes. “It is not the obnoxious smell that is toxic, it is the fumes from unregulated [and unqualified] burning of trash, which is where the most toxic of emissions come from.”

“There is no data proving there is a definitive correlation between health impact and the exposure to trash itself. The issue with the trash is not the bacteria itself but rather [with] bugs and rodents – immune to insecticide. When it comes to polluted water, our biggest problem is [inadequate] infrastructure for things like irrigation and sewage,” Zeineddine said.

Besides Costa Brava, the government plan stipulates the establishment of another landfill in Burj Hammoud. Trash would be dumped in both sites after being treated. Makeshift dumps along the Damascus and Sidon highways are also stark reminders of the lack of legislation, regulation and general overseeing of the collection, treatment and management of municipal solid waste in the country.

The Arab Forum for Environment and Development publishes annual studies, surveys and reports on public opinion and sustainable regional development, also acting as a platform for awareness campaigns. Founder Najib Saab told The Daily Star that “it is not an either-or type of situation, and the only solution is to use integrated systems that involve composting, recycling and scientifically disposing of solid waste.” Additionally, divided politics stalls the legislation and licensing for a variety of solid waste management projects. Ultimately, by introducing and implementing “integrated systems” of solid waste management to the economy not only creates jobs but downgrades the risks to public health and the environment.

Ziad Abi Shaker, director of Cedar Environmental, explained that the infrastructure and resource containers necessary for recycling, composting and disposal are all readily available in Lebanon.

Abi Shaker’s agency even comes equipped with the technological and technical capabilities of managing solid waste without the use of incinerators that would only further deter public health.

“We need to look into the results of reliable tests conducted by qualified professionals such as medics, biologists, so on and so forth ... having a team of specialists surveying the area, to study the impact of all this on the people and the environment,” he added. “It is safe to assume, due to the experiences in other countries where landfills have been studied, people have been suffering from flowering illnesses due to exposure from the cocktail of toxic fumes,” he said. “Locally, we cannot assess the living conditions because we do not have this information. For instance, to compare the quality of the air in the Naameh area as similar to [what] the air in the Batroun area is, but we cannot quantify yet [due to a lack of surveys of the area],” Abi Shaker added.

 

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