Sounding the Alarm As Lebanese Streets Drown in Trash
Until mid October 2015, the Health Ministry registered 460 cases across Lebanon versus 364 cases in 2014.
Lebanon’s waste management crisis is approaching its four-month mark with no end in sight. Following the first rains, tons of trash bags which have been piling alongside the capital’s streets—flooded the roads and obstructed drivers.
Meanwhile, the government remains in a deadlock over finding a comprehensive and sustainable solution to the festering waste management crisis.
Once known as the ‘Paris of the Middle East,” Lebanon is now drowning in a sea of trash-in residential areas, near restaurants and even in riverbeds. But this messy situation doesn’t end here. Rubbish hills set along the country’s shoreline, also pollute the Mediterranean with every storm, as garbage bags slide into the water and drift with the currents.
The environmental impact that this crisis has on the lives of everyone living in this tiny Mediterranean country constitutes a major concern.
With the first rain falling, experts fear an all out environmental disaster that can lead to an outbreak of waterborne and foodborne diseases as a direct result of underground water and soil contamination.
The environmental problem has already caused a range of diseases, Dr. Salim Adib, a professor of microbiology at the American University of Beirut (AUB), told Newsweek Middle East.
“Rainfall along with the increase in temperature [prior to the rain] help bacteria multiply and flies proliferate. Flies contaminate food, consequently transferring viruses and bacteria to man,” he said.
According to scientific studies, a female fly lays between 120 to 150 eggs at a time, multiple times, during her one-month life span. During that month, the fly lays around 600 to 900 eggs which hatch in less than a day and mature in a week’s time.
Sea pollution: Lethal Seafood
As the crisis snowballs, with no clear solution and rain water drifting garbage bags into the sea, Dr. Adib expressed fears that pollution will eventually impact all of Lebanon’s shoreline.
The most pressing concern emanates from rain falling on the piles of trash in Beirut and pouring directly into the sea, contaminating, in the longer run, marine life.
Add to that waste possibly seeping through to Lebanon’s underground fresh water reservoirs in mountainous areas, and one has a real catastrophe at hand.
But the garbage crisis is not new and is more than 17-years-old, though not at the scale it stands at today, and not in this form.
“We lack a real national waste management plan. We could’ve treated a huge percentage of the trash instead of burying 82 percent of it and benefited from its thermal and economic returns; as well as producing fertilizers from organic waste products,” said Dr. Adib.
Burning waste: Deliberate killing
Met with an incapable government and a nauseating stench, Beirut residents are increasingly burning the heaps of garbage piling up in front of their homes in a desperate attempt to get rid of both the odors and bacteria in one go. However, the resulting fumes pose a health hazard for people with respiratory problems, such as asthma. Burning waste also releases dangerous carcinogenic substances in the air as a result of the combustion of plastic trash bags.
Sales of “asthma sprays” have witnessed an increase since the waste crisis began three months ago, said Dr. Adib.
Medical sources believe municipalities should spray the uncovered trash on the streets with calcium oxide, which helps kill bugs and rodents, rather than allow residents to burn it.
Cancer in the Making
Another major health hazard lies in heavy metals that have been discarded in random dumpsters, such as cadmium, nickel, mercury and cobalt, all of which can be found in car batteries, flashlights, thermometers and other medical items, all of which are carcinogenic and a threat to human life. Traces of these items, transported via haphazard burning of garbage or ingesting food grown near them, or water polluted with them, infiltrate and settle in a human body and can stay for decades.
Cancer cells take about 20 or more years to appear in the body, explained Dr. Adib, adding that it is difficult to link an environmental problem happening today to cancer developing two decades later.
A study prepared by the head of the Histology and Oncology Department at AUB Medical Center, Ali Chamseddine, showed that 9,870 new cancer cases were reported in Lebanon in 2012. Sadly, the Lebanese Health Ministry has not issued a national cancer registry since 2008.
A Disease-infested Environment
Information has been released by the Lebanese Health Ministry with-regards-to communicable diseases that could be set off by pollution reveal horrific details. The number of food poisoning cases due to salmonella-related bacteria, typhoid fever, meningitis among others have shown an increase ever since the waste crisis infested the country.
Until mid October 2015, the Health Ministry registered 460 cases across Lebanon, a notable rise from 364 cases in 2014.
Food poisoning results from consuming bacteria-contaminated food. Salmonellosis, transmitted via food and water, is the main cause behind food poisoning. It is also the most complicated among the diseases resulting from garbage pollution, according to medical sources. It can be transmitted via the feet of flies from polluted places, such as dumpsters and contaminated water surfaces to exposed food, such as meat at butcheries, uncovered pastries in bakeries and fruits and vegetables in open markets, as well as uncooked food.
An acute inflammation of the brain and spinal membranes, meningitis is transmitted via viruses or bacteria, namely viruses in contaminated water.The ministry recorded 286 cases in 2015 by the end of September, compared with 232 in 2014.
The possibility of an outbreak in Hepatitis A cases due to the garbage crisis remains subdued for now. The Health Ministry’s Epidemic Detection Unit recorded 791 cases in 2015 compared to 2,582 cases in 2014. Noting that the number of cases registered rose by 41 cases between end of September and mid October.
Hepatitis A, which affects the liver, can be transmitted via direct contact with an infected person or via contaminated food or water. Such a health risk becomes heightened with the approach of winter and without an imminent solution in sight.
The Lebanese Ministry of Health is unequipped to diagnose this category and the country lacks the proper vaccination to protect against it.
The Health Ministry says the number for Shigellosis remain contained at 166 cases in 2015.
But with an infested environment in Beirut and Mount Lebanon, this intestinal inflammation and disorder disease, caused by the consumption of contaminated food or water, is likely to see a hike in registered cases going forward if no solution is offered to fix the problem.
Dr. Nada Ghosn, of the Epidemic Detection Unit, told Newsweek Middle East that the bacteria usually come from flies, which reproduce in areas full of trash. “This disease is contagious.”
The Health Ministry recorded 32 cases in 2015 compared to 663 in 2014. However, most cases in 2014 were detected in Syrian refugees who entered the country and were already infected with it. She asserts that they were treated in Lebanon.But with the eruption of this garbage crisis, who knows what the consequences will be.
Typhoid is a communicable disease resulting from the consumption of substances contaminated with certain types of salmonella.
The ministry recorded 426 new cases in 2015, with 83 cases registered between end of September and mid October. No comparable numbers were provided from the previous year.
Acute diarrhea or bloody diarrhea, jaundice, scabies and asthma, are all diseases that can be triggered by contaminated food and water., says health ministry officials.
So far, Lebanese authorities have maintained that Beirut and Mount Lebanon’s water plant tests, up to August 2015, proved that the water distributed was clean and free of microbes.
Though Lebanon’s last registered cholera cases were in 1993, yet, according to the World Health Organization, a person may contract cholera by consuming contaminated food and water, raw or undercooked seafood and unclean raw fruit and vegetables. Flies can also play a limited role in spreading the disease.
The current crisis has revived fears of a cholera outbreak, despite reassurances from Health Ministry officials that such a possibility remains slim. The worrisome question remains: How much longer can Lebanon’s residents remain safe as rain continues to fall, threatening to contaminate the country’s crops and underground water?