The political aspect of Lebanon’s Garbage Crisis has been discussed extensively. The protests around the issue and their underwritten goals have also been discussed extensively. What hasn’t been talked about in the media, however, is how this garbage crisis in Greater Beirut is affecting our health and how the first bouts of rain, set to come within the next few weeks if we go by Lebanon’s standards, will exacerbate this crisis into a full blown health crisis as well.
To be honest, this isn’t something I learned in medical school. We don’t have courses about garbage-crisis-related-health-issues. This is very short-sighted, I know.
So with a little help from my Infectious Diseases specialist-to-be friend Tala Ballouz, a little research was done and we’ve come up with the following.
So the Greater Beirut area today is essentially a very urban area that has its garbage being deposited basically everywhere. With rainfall that runs on this garbage, many of the extracts in our garbage will become dissolved and suspended in the rain, forming a liquid called leachate.
So what is leachate made of? Let’s list them.
- Aerobic and anaerobic bacteria (where is Abou Faour when you need him?),
- High concentrations of total dissolved solids, ammonia, nitrate, phosphate, chloride, calcium, potassium, sulfate, and iron,
- Numerous heavy metals such as zinc, mercury, cadmium, lead, nickel,
- Organic trace constituents: byproducts of decomposing solvents, pesticides, and polychlorinated biphenyls, a highly toxic environmental pollutant.
- High numbers of fecal bacteria.
Leachate occurs over landfills, dumps and essentially wherever garbage exists. In developed countries, their high level waste management systems prevent this substance from being anything worthwhile. Developing countries, however, don’t have it as easy.
How about if that developing country was a country like ours in our own garbage situation that consists of: 1) garbage being present on streets, next to rivers, next to the sea and on land where it shouldn’t be, 2) that same garbage being unmanaged and untreated for over 57 days now which means its level of decomposition is in the stratosphere and 3) when even our rivers are blocked by it?
With the formation of leachate with Lebanon’s upcoming rain season, the toxic water will do the following:
- Infiltrate into the underground water reserves that we have. This will lead to highly toxic water for us to use in various industries, be it in agriculture or even personal use.
- The rain, coupled with the fumes of the garbage along with leachate, will form acid rain. This will affect aquatic life, Lebanon’s already-fragile infrastructure and whatever plants we have left.
- The consumption of products that are this polluted (indirectly) with this many toxins (check the list above) serves as a massive hub for carcinogens, substances that increase the risk of cancer.
- The Beirut River will have unnaturally high toxic levels (remember when it was red? this will be worse), that’s if it doesn’t overflow, sending waste and toxins into the homes of those living around it.
- Illnesses that are not endemic to Lebanon will start surfacing, notably cholera, a bacteria that thrives on infected water.
Other infectious problems we might have are the following:
- Amoebiasis –> causes fever, abdominal discomfort, bloating, fever, weight loss.
- Infections with various tapeworms –> cause a wide array of intestinal disturbance and could even have neurologic sequelae.
- Echinococcosis –> causes liver cysts, and can cause anaphylactic shocks.
- Various bacteria that are not only cholera (C. jejuni, E. Coli, Salmonella, Shigella, Legionella) –> cause symptoms ranging from intestinal to pulmonary to neurologic symptoms.
As a country, we are not ready to handle many things, as is testament by the fact that our garbage has been on the streets for about two months. A health crisis due to this garbage crisis is also something that the country cannot remotely handle. The epidemics we can get are not fiction, but they are right around the corner.
What can you do?
Pressure your politicians to get the garbage off the streets… yesterday. And if not? Well, don’t drink the water.