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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Beirut's Deadly Air

Air Date: Week of

Pink clouds in the aftermath of the 2020 Beirut explosions. A catastrophic blast rocked Beirut's port resulting from the detonation of hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate, a fertilizer material with highly explosive properties. (Photo: Freimut Bahlo, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Clouds of diesel fumes clog the air in Beirut, Lebanon where the virtual collapse of the power grid has led residents to rely on diesel generators. The city’s air is now so badly polluted researchers at the American University of Beirut are linking it to a startling 30% spike in cancer cases. Chemistry professor Najat Saliba, who is also a member of Lebanon’s parliament, joins Host Steve Curwood to discuss the health toll of this pollution and its roots in Lebanon’s debt crisis.


CURWOOD: From PRX and the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios at the University of Massachusetts Boston, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.


CURWOOD: Clouds of diesel fumes constantly clog the air in Beirut, Lebanon, where the noise of generators can make it hard to think or sleep. Once known as the Paris of the Middle East, Beirut is suffering a chronic financial crisis and the virtual collapse of its electric power grid. So, residents must rely on thousands of diesel generators to keep the lights on. And Beirut’s air is now so badly polluted, researchers at the American University of Beirut are linking it to a startling 30% spike in cancer cases.
One of those researchers is Najat Saliba, a chemistry professor. She’s also an air quality expert for the World Health Organization and a member of Lebanon’s parliament. Professor Saliba joins us on the line from Beirut. Welcome to Living on Earth!

SALIBA: Thank you for the invitation.

CURWOOD: If you could please begin with giving us some insight into the influx in the use of diesel generators in Beirut. Why has that happened?

SALIBA: Well, probably 10 years ago, national electricity started rationing hours of electricity for residents in the country. It started with three hours of rationing, and then it escalated into six hours. And then in 2022, the power plants and the national grid went really down. And people started relying heavily on diesel generators to subsidize the lack of electricity coming from the national grid. It is mismanagement and lack of responsibility and accountability in the way the national electricity grid and power plants were handled in the country.

CURWOOD: Now, I understand a few years back, there was a major explosion in downtown Beirut at the shipping docks. To what extent did that explosion and fires relate to this loss of electrical capacity?

SALIBA: Well, this is just another manifestation of the lack of responsibility and inefficiency and corruption in the government, whereby they store chemicals, explosives, without really taking care of them and protecting the civilians from their harms. And in the same way, this is how the power plants in the country were handled. And that's why they're leaving people without electricity, and even without really caring about their safety.

The Beirut skyline with a lingering haze of pollution. (Photo: Marviikad, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

CURWOOD: Let's talk about the pollution there now. If one uses a lot of diesel generators it, among other things, creates a fair amount of particulate pollution. How can the pollution be seen there? To what extent is this something that you notice when you step out of your house?

SALIBA: Well, it's obvious to the naked eye when you go outside Beirut, especially directly next to Beirut hills that people live in. And when they go down to their jobs to Beirut in the morning, you can see that Beirut is completely covered by a thick haze of pollution. And right now, people are asking why this haze is becoming darker and darker by the season. And in the summer, because there is no wind and no rain, we see this almost every day.

CURWOOD: Now, to what extent is this increase in the use of diesel electric generators being linked to a spike in cancer rates there?

SALIBA: So what happened is, since 2010, we have done a lot of air pollution studies whereby we collected particles from the air and we did chemical analysis. And with the chemical analysis, we did a parallel fingerprint to see what are the sources of pollution in the city. And since 2010, we have realized that over 20% of the pollution is mainly coming from diesel generators. Fast forward to 2022, we repeated the same study and we were able to compare it to previous years. This is when we found that the amount of pollution coming from diesel generators has increased to 50%. And with that comes carcinogens in the air that have led to the increase in the cancer rate by 30%. And in the cancer risk by 50%.

Dr. Najat Aoun Saliba is is the director of the American University of Beirut's (AUB) Nature Conservation Center, a member of the Parliament of Lebanon and an advisor to the World Health Organization. She has led the research at AUB on the correlation between the spike in cancer rates and the influx of diesel generators in the city. (Photo: World Intellectual Property Organization, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0)

CURWOOD: So what do you attribute the factors that are contributing to hazardous air quality there in Beirut?

SALIBA: So, we have done what we call a source apportionment whereby we look at the sources contributing to air pollution. And we found that the main sources of air pollution in the city of Beirut are the particles coming from diesel generators and also particles coming from the cars and the vehicles that are running on a daily basis. Again, we have no industry or very limited industrial activities, and that's why we consider those two sources as the main sources of pollution. Mind you that the car fleet that we have measured or we have assessed in 2017 have shown that the average age of the cars that are on the streets is 18 years. And with the economic collapse since 2019, it is expected that this the average age has probably went higher, meaning that the cars are much older than what we have seen in 2017, and this exacerbate the air pollution.

CURWOOD: We do know that worldwide there are about 8 million excess deaths from particulate pollution. But at this point, we don't have more precise data from Lebanon, from Beirut itself. Now, how can the lack of definitive data be explained for what seems to be really a public health and environmental health crisis there in Beirut?

SALIBA: Exactly, because the monitoring stations that were once running are now stopped. And that's why we don't have continuous data of how much particulate matter we have. The present inefficient government is a complete violation of all human rights. And it's just stripping people from their right of for clean air, clean water.

CURWOOD: Why is that? Do you think? To what extent is it related to the economic conditions there, the political conditions, to the wars nearby? What, what do you think is driving this?

SALIBA: After Lebanon has battled with civil war for around 20 to 25 years, the warlords decided to end the war and wear a suit and take charge of the government. And since then, they—and I'm talking since 1990—even though they came up with a new constitution that emphasizes reform, nothing has been done. And things have been deteriorating. And corruption has been really predominating over any reform, or any advancement and development in the country. And of course, this has its toll on, on the environment, and it has its toll on the well-being of people.

The scale of destruction caused by the 2020 explosion at the ports in Beirut. Experts have characterized this event as one of the most powerful non-nuclear explosions ever recorded in human history. (Photo: Mehr News Agency, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 4.0)

CURWOOD: And as I understand it, Lebanon has been the recipient of a significant amount of international aid and some loans. What has happened to those funds?

SALIBA: That's a very, very good question, and I would like the taxpayers all over the world to ask their countries of why auditing and accountability has not been enforced on the international aids that have poured into Lebanon. And we still have very little to show for from these grants and loans. I think they have spent already $43 billion on the electricity sector. $43 billion are able to not only build a new infrastructure of electricity, they can build a country altogether. So with all this money spent on the electricity sector, we still don't have electricity. And we pay two bills, one for the government and one for the diesel generators owners, because we cannot live without it. And we know that the emissions of these diesel generators are going to harm us. But we are left to decide between living in a poisonous environment or living without electricity.

CURWOOD: So would you mind for a moment just looking up at the air quality index today in Beirut, as we're speaking? What are the numbers right now?

SALIBA: There is no index. Because we don't have monitoring stations that are operating. So the average particulate matter 2.5 mass that we, or concentration that we have measured over the past 10 to 15 years has hovered between 20 to 25 micrograms per meter cubed as an annual average. And this is at least five times higher than what is recommended by the World Health Organization. So unfortunately, the lives of people here are not really attended for. They are forced to close their windows, winter and summer. Because the sound, the noise of the diesel generators, the smell from the diesel that comes up, and the smoke, all of them can fill up the house.

CURWOOD: So what's the mood among the public there in Beirut, in Lebanon about this? What's the political impact of this?

SALIBA: We can say that a lot of people are really upset from the ruling warlords, but at the same time, these people have created a deep state whereby a lot of people's lives depend on them. And that's why it's very difficult to say that the people have really the freedom to choose between them and other candidates. Because clientelism and dependency have been entrenched in people's lives. And that's why those rulers have become like dictators.

CURWOOD: Indeed. Dr. Saliba, what kind of mitigation plans are in place, if any, right now to, to try to turn this situation around?

SALIBA: So what we're trying to do is now putting a lot of pressure through media and through publications and through press releases on the executive branch of the government to actually implement some regulations on these diesel generators to reduce emission, while also demanding for a 24 over 24 electricity coming from the national electricity company. We are also in the process of communicating this with the judiciary in order for them to be able to enforce the decrees that have been issued by the Ministry of Environment in terms of regulating how diesel generators operate in order for the emission to be regulated and reduced.

Dr. Saliba’s students conducting chemical analysis as part of the research on diesel generator emissions at the American University of Beirut. (Photo: Courtesy of Najat Saliba)

CURWOOD: Najat Saliba is a World Health Organization adviser on air pollution, also a professor and researcher at the American University of Beirut and a member of parliament in Lebanon. Thanks so much for taking the time with us today, Dr. Saliba.

SALIBA: Thank you for having me.

CURWOOD: Our direct requests for comments from the Lebanese government so far have gone unanswered. We did find that Nasser Yassin, the Minister of Environment in Lebanon’s caretaker government, was recently quoted in the Lebanese publication, The National. He said, “The presence of this large number of generators and their use most of the time is an anomaly and should be reduced through better and cleaner sources of electricity.” But he did not offer a timetable for a solution.



The Guardian | “‘Where Can You Hide from Pollution?’: Cancer Rises 30% in Beirut as Diesel Generators Poison City”


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