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Dust Left by Beirut’s Massive Explosion May Be a Major Danger to Health

Academics in Beirut aren’t convinced their caretaker government is prepared to coordinate the massive clean-up needed after the huge explosion that devastated the Lebanese capital’s port area and showered toxic dust over large swaths of the city.

So in a matter of days after the August 4 blast, faculty members, mostly from the American University of Beirut, quickly organized four teams under the name “Khaddit Beirut” (“Beirut blast”), to help the city claw its way back to normal.

Najat A. Saliba, a professor of chemistry at the American University of Beirut, was one of the organizers.

At 6 p.m. on August 4, Saliba was on a Zoom call with several colleagues. Suddenly her fifth-floor apartment, in a suburb about seven kilometers from the port, shook in what Saliba assumed was a mild earthquake.

Moments later she felt an enormous blast. “I hugged my husband and we ran into the bathroom, thinking, like during the civil war, that was the safest place.”

The next day she and a friend went to the area near the port and walked amid the rubble and roped-off buildings in danger of collapse. Saliba, who specializes in atmospheric chemistry, became increasingly anxious thinking about the respiratory illness, cancers and other diseases that exposure to the toxic dust has caused after previous disasters, like the collapse of New York’s World Trade Center towers in the September 2001 terror attack.

Already exhausted and demoralized from Lebanon’s severe, yearlong financial crisis, followed by the coronavirus pandemic, Beirutis are now faced with a third, totally unexpected calamity.

Confronting an Array of Challenges

“We felt angry and helpless,” Saliba says, convinced the authorities would do little to protect people from the risks, just as for years they had reportedly ignored repeated pleas from port officials to move the 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate that finally exploded.

Saliba and her colleagues decided they needed to act in the government’s place and set up Khaddit Beirut, bringing together academia and civil society to coordinate a response and establish guidelines to manage the clean-up. 

“We are worried about what was stored in the warehouses. There are a lot of unknowns.”

Iman Nuwayhid  
Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences at the American University of Beirut

Khaddit Beirut’s four teams are:

  • An environmental health team to create and publicize guidelines to help cleaners and residents protect themselves from toxins and help coordinate the analysis of air and dust samples.
  • A health team to assure access to prescription medicines and medical care. Just over a week after the blast, the World Health Organization announced that over 50 percent of the city’s clinics and health centers were “nonfunctional.”
  • An education team to help primary and secondary schools confront both the coronavirus pandemic and the effects of the blast, which damaged 159 public and private schools, according to a U.N. assessment.
  • A small-businesses team to help affected entrepreneurs get back on their feet.

The teams soon expanded with the addition of faculty members from other universities, people from the private sector and nongovernmental organizations, and some experts from government agencies. They now have over 30 members and are assisted by a number of students.

Meeting through video conferencing and socially distanced in-person discussions, the teams quickly began confronting the challenges left by the blast.

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Managers of art galleries, cafes and other establishments in the badly damaged neighborhoods close to the port were heartened to see throngs of young volunteers descend on the downtown after the catastrophe to help clear the debris and broken glass that carpeted the streets. (See a related article, “Explosion Took a Heavy Toll on Beirut’s Arts and Culture Scene.”)

‘A Lot of Unknowns’

But members of Khaddit Beirut’s environmental health team were alarmed.

“If we’re lucky, they’re wearing some type of mask out of concern for Covid-19,” says Iman Nuwayhid, a professor of public health and dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences at the American University of Beirut.

“But they’re certainly not wearing specialized respirators, helmets, boots, etc.”

Experts say there is good reason to fear that volunteers and people living in the neighborhoods most affected by the blast could face serious health risks from breathing in the dust that blanketed the area.

The risks come not so much from the large amounts of nitrogen dioxide gas created when the ammonium nitrate exploded. The gas’s presence was revealed by the reddish color of the large mushroom cloud produced by the blast. Nitrogen dioxide is an irritant especially harmful to people with asthma or other respiratory problems. But experts say most of it would have dissipated in a number of hours.

“It’s very likely a lot of asbestos was showered on people in the blast zone.”

Rick Hind  
Former legislative director at Greenpeace USA and an expert on toxic and chemical security issues

Instead, the greater risk comes from building materials like asbestos and other hazardous substances that may have been stored at the port that were pulverized by the blast.

“We are worried about what was stored in the warehouses,” says Nuwayhid. “There are a lot of unknowns.”

Special Care of Asbestos Risks

Exposure to asbestos, once widely used in construction, is a significant concern. “It’s very likely a lot of asbestos was showered on people in the blast zone,” says Rick Hind, former legislative director at Greenpeace USA and an expert on toxic and chemical security issues.

Breathing asbestos can cause such diseases as mesothelioma—a cancer of the membrane that covers the lungs—as well as lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Hind says this makes it very important that modern protocols be followed when clearing away rubble or tearing down damaged structures. These include repeatedly hosing down a site to keep the dust down, having workers wear protective clothing and air purifying respirators, and disposing of rubble in designated hazardous waste sites.

Experts warn that a host of other toxic substances could be in the dust that was deposited on streets, cars and every other surface in many downtown neighborhoods. These include lead, which is very harmful to the human brain, from old water pipes, and dioxin, another powerful poison that could be produced if PVC pipes are burned.

Testing Air and Dust Samples

These concerns are not mere speculation but based on previous disasters.

After terrorists flew two airliners into the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center in 2001, reducing them to huge piles of rubble, the head of America’s Environmental Protection Agency assured New Yorkers that the air near the disaster site was safe. Fifteen years later, the agency’s administrator, Christine Todd Whitman, apologized and admitted that she had been wrong.

Many emergency responders and clean-up workers at the Lower Manhattan site had developed long-term illnesses after inhaling the toxic dust thrown up by the towers’ collapse.

Khaddit Beirut’s environmental health team is trying to coordinate with the United Nations and international recovery teams in the collection of air and dust samples for analysis in laboratories outside Lebanon.

“The more [dust and] air pollution you have, the more likelihood Covid will be transmitted.”

Najat A. Saliba  
A professor of chemistry at the American University of Beirut

The team is also working on guidelines on the types of protective clothing, masks, respirators and procedures needed for those carrying out the clean-up and rebuilding work, with help from the World Health Organization and the U.S. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

Other risks include mold that may be present in older damaged buildings, especially after they are exposed to water damage, and contamination from ruptured wastewater pipes.

“Khaddit is trying to create rules about what should be done, who is collecting and analyzing samples, and determining if we should be concerned with what is in rubble,” says Nuwayhid, the public health professor.  “Resources are limited and we want to minimize duplications and make sure gaps are filled.”

Mounting Cases of Covid-19

On top of all this, Lebanon’s health authorities announced on August 21 that the number of new Covid-19 cases had nearly doubled during the previous two and a half weeks. That same day the authorities imposed a new two-week lock-down with a curfew from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., though relief and aid work is exempted.

Covid-19 is transmitted by air particles, says Saliba. “So the more [dust and] air pollution you have, the more likelihood Covid will be transmitted.”

The members of Khaddit Beirut are all working as volunteers, and they are expected to soon begin returning to their full-time jobs as professors, doctors and other professions. But last week, the American University of Beirut’s president, Fadlo Khuri, told the group in an email that he was favorable to creating an office at the university to support the group’s work.

“We’re looking at this as long-term initiative,” says Nuwayhid. “The clean-up will take months. And we shouldn’t miss the opportunity to document our own experiences so that others can learn from it. We need to build capacity and institutional memory in case another disaster strikes.”


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