Lebanese people fear health problems as tons of garbage still piling up streets
Lebanon’s rubbish collection crisis, which caused thousands to protest on the streets last summer, is now in its eighth month with no resolution in sight. Though it has prompted political debates and occasional heated discussions, Lebanese medical professionals are increasingly alarmed by its effect on health.
At the emergency room at the Sacré-Coeur hospital outside Beirut, doctors say they are seeing a spike in severe respiratory diseases and believe it is tied to the ongoing trash disaster.
The crisis erupted last July after authorities closed the primary landfill for Beirut and the surrounding coastal governorate without providing an alternative.
Thousands took to the streets in demonstrations directed at the political class, which has walled itself off from popular opinion and failed to provide other basic services such as water, electricity and drainage.
But the protests died down and politicians have been in no hurry to solve the disaster. They have instead been occupied with containing the fallout of an abrupt Saudi Arabian decision to cancel $4bn (£2.8bn) in aid, most of it earmarked for the army.
It is not just Sacré-Coeur that is under strain. Hospital beds across Beirut have been full this winter, partly because of a panic over swine flu – which the health minister, Wael Abou Faour, said claimed four lives through mid-February – but doctors say more patients are coming in because of the garbage.
“We’re seeing new profiles in the emergency rooms this year,” said Joelle Khadra-Eid, a doctor at Sacré-Coeur. “These are people who didn’t have asthma or allergies when they were young. They’ve been exposed to … pollution that wasn’t around before.”
Beirut’s streets are kept relatively rubbish-free, which has helped pacify the public, and the waste is being pushed to the city’s periphery where it piles up along the roadside and the banks of the Beirut river.
“In some cases, they start burning the trash, and then we see widespread breathing difficulties and skin infections,” said Rachid Rahme, the director of Sacré-Coeur’s emergency and critical care units.
In the suburb of Jdeideh, to Beirut’s east, local officials closed a winding road to create a rivulet of rubbish, stuffed into large white sacks, which snakes down the hill. After a local newspaper, the Daily Star, published a photo, residents joked that it must be one of the country’s much-hyped ski slopes, and the international press flocked to the vista.
But the exposure has not shamed politicians into action. More than once, government ministers announced an imminent solution to the crisis, which never materialised, and now there is talk of dissolving the government of the prime minister, Tammam Salam.
On Thursday, Salam told his cabinet that “there is no need for the government to stay” if it cannot resolve this crisis, the information minister, Ramzi Joreige, said.
A few municipalities launched their own recycling initiatives, but many others simply resorted to burning their rubbish, often in residential areas. Air contamination in these areas became more than 400 times worse than pollution in the country’s industrial areas, a study by the American University of Beirut revealed last year.
In December, six months into the crisis, Rahme said cases of gastroenteritis had already gone up 30% compared with 2014.
Most recently, Rahme said admissions rates at Sacré-Coeur’s ER department have jumped 25%, and routine symptoms are growing more severe.
It is too early for any firm statistics on if and how the spikes in illnesses have affected mortality rates, but the trend is alarming, doctors say.
“We’re facing a huge outbreak in persistent infections, either in the respiratory system, where viral infections can linger on for six weeks or more, or in the gastrointestinal tract,” he said.
“We are seeing diarrhoea, vomiting, and abdominal pain that go on for three to four weeks.”