How Rain Will Make Lebanon’s Garbage Crisis Much, Much Worse

Beirut River

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.

  1. Aerobic and anaerobic bacteria (where is Abou Faour when you need him?),
  2. High concentrations of total dissolved solids, ammonia, nitrate, phosphate, chloride, calcium, potassium, sulfate, and iron,
  3. Numerous heavy metals such as zinc, mercury, cadmium, lead, nickel,
  4. Organic trace constituents: byproducts of decomposing solvents, pesticides, and polychlorinated biphenyls, a highly toxic environmental pollutant.
  5. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Don’t Take Your Health Lightly

I’ve found this to be an almost natural – and quite comical – attribute to the Lebanese person (and possibly applicable everywhere too), which is: there’s nothing wrong with me unless I can’t stand on both feet anymore.

Take my mother for instance. Yesterday evening, she was shaking and trembling, suffering from acute pain in her lower back area, and she was hypothermic. I insisted we’d take her to the hospital because what was happening to her was not normal. But she vehemently refused. And soon enough, after taking a collection of over-the-counter drugs, she felt good enough to function.

My dad woke me up this morning, a scene that is oddly deja-vu, to tell me that we have to take my mother to the hospital. Why? She was having the exact same episode she had the night before. So we took my mom to the hospital and she got examined by an ER doctor who determined that she might be suffering from kidney stones. Further tests need to be done, obviously, but this is not something that over-the-counter drugs can fix.

The scene of my dad waking me up to take my mother to the hospital is deja-vu because it happened eighteen months ago when, after suffering from a mild stomach-ache which she dismissed as stomach flu, my mother couldn’t walk from pain in her lower-right abdomen the following day. Yes, you guessed it: appendicitis.

And the “funny” thing is that this doesn’t apply to my mom alone. Have you ever found yourself in the midst of those visits where people start chit-chatting about their health and prescribing drugs to each other? Well, if you haven’t  let me lay out the scenario.

Person A knocks on person B’s door. Warm Lebanese greetings ensue. Person A enters and sits down. Person B goes to prepare coffee or calls up on the maid to do so. Coffee is served. Person A and Person B start chatting about the most mundane of things. Then Person A mentions that they’ve been having this weird rash on their back. Person B knows just the thing for that! This ointment that he got prescribed by Person C who got it from Person D, etc…

It baffles me how some people can conceive and fully accept the idea that they know more about their health than a physician who went through a decade long educational process and who – in his/her most rudimentary mental form – knows at least a little more about that rash or ache.

So people, instead of seeking help from people who’s only medical knowledge is what they watch on Doctors, how about you go see a real doctor next time? Pain is the body’s way of telling  you something’s wrong. Consider it as a text message. You always reply to text messages (when you have credit). How about a text message that might be the difference between you staying alive or dying?