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Beirut's Deadly Explosion Created Massive Pollution – How Bad Is It?
By Kathleen Schuster
In the weeks since Beirut's deadly chemical blast, residents have been sweeping up the broken glass and wiping down surfaces caked in dust. And it's this dust that some say poses a major threat to the city.
"The most dangerous thing" right now, according to Greenpeace's Middle East and North Africa program manager in Beirut, Julien Jreissati, is that no one knows "what actually exploded besides ammonium nitrate" and, therefore, how toxic the dust is.
"We don't know what kind of pollution, what level of pollution, what the potential impact is and, therefore, what the potential countermeasures" should be, says Jreissati.
On August 4, nearly 3,000 tons of the highly combustible chemical compound exploded in Beirut's port, shooting a plume of orange smoke into the afternoon sky, followed quickly by a pressure wave that ripped through nearby buildings and blew out windows across the metropolis.
And while those toxic gases are believed to have dissipated after several days, authorities have yet to confirm what else burned in the port warehouse fire and subsequently exploded. They also don't know the magnitude or composition of the fine particulate matter released from the rubble and broken glass.
Side Effects of Ammonium Nitrate
What is known is that when heated, ammonium nitrate — commonly used in fertilizers and, due to its ability to speed up combustion, also in explosives — melts, releasing toxic gases like nitrogen oxides (NOx) and ammonia gas (NH3).
These gases, both harmful to the human respiratory system and the environment, in turn break down and react with other chemicals. Nitrogen oxides, for example, when combined with other pollutants and sunlight form "bad ozone," that is to say, ozone at ground level.
Not only would these gases mix with Beirut's already dangerous air pollution levels — a combination of fossil fuel combustion, sea salt, and mineral dust — which were estimated at least 150% over the World Health Organization's (WHO) standards before the disaster, but also with demolition dust.
There's no up-to-date information on the level of air pollution at the moment: Beirut shut down its monitoring system to cut costs in 2019. In previous years, though, Lebanon has averaged roughly 30 micrograms of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) per cubic meter, far above the WHO recommendation of 10 micrograms per cubic meter.
"There's the demolition construction, demolition waste from the buildings, the walls, the concrete. There's a lot of glass, obviously, also from the buildings and some from the high rises that were the curtain wall, so a lot of glass," says Jihan Seoud, who manages the UNDP's Energy and Environment Program in Beirut.
It's this uncertainty that makes Seoud cautious. There are too many unknown variables to jump to conclusions, she says – and running tests will take time.
Political Instability Holds Up Testing
One person familiar with those tests is Najat Saliba, a professor of chemistry at the American University of Beirut, where she also directs the Nature Conservation Center.
Her team has been taking air samples with their own sensors and expects results in about a month — double the wait of the usual procedure, she says, due to the economic collapse.
"We are really running very low on resources like quality standards and equipment to do the tests," Saliba says.
She emphasizes that at the heart of it all is political incompetence — the same kind that has, for example, seen pollution levels worsen with the rise of diesel-powered generators across Beirut, where the power grid is unable to provide electricity for 24 hours a day.
And while the dust issue has been concerning, Saliba notes that a bigger problem is looming: garbage.
Beirut's Epic Trash Problem
That message doesn't bode well for Beirut, which has been dealing with a recurring trash crisis for several years, and is now facing a cleanup to the tune of up to $15 million (€12.6 million). In 2015, the government failed to react quickly enough after a major trash dump was closed, leaving streets and beaches covered in mounds of solid waste.
In fact, one of the city's main landfills reached capacity in late April, prompting the government to approve a vertical expansion that would hold for roughly three months – or until around the time of the blast.
The question of what to do with the solid waste has been on the mind of some, like Salam Kabboul, a local freelance journalist and co-founder of "The Tent," a volunteer initiative launched the day after the blast. The name refers to their first project of offering victims snacks and a place to rest with the only thing they had on hand: a tent.
Now, they repair buildings and homes so life can return to normal. They take precautions for the dust, but when it comes to dealing with trash, they're also in the dark about what to do.
"It's not clear what happens to the waste," says Kabboul, who, like everyone else is aware of another imminent trash crisis.
A new aspect of this problem is the type of debris in the cleanup. According to Seoud from UNDP, there's a lot of hard-to-dispose-of items like air conditioners, compressors, electronics.
There's also medical waste from the COVID-19 pandemic, and the fear of chemical waste – both of which could cause problems for the city's water. As things stand, Beirut is waiting to find out if all of its pipes are still intact post-explosion, and researchers still aren't allowed to test the already contaminated coastal waters, which are roped off as the search for the missing continues.
Beirut is facing one pollution problem on top of another. Now, with the magnitude of dust and debris putting the city under even more strain, civilians and NGOs alike hope that this disaster could mark a turning point as it moves forward.
Reposted with permission from Deutsche Welle.
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By Teri Schultz
Europe is in a panic over the second wave of COVID-19, with infection rates sky-rocketing and GDP plummeting. Belgium has just announced it will no longer test asymptomatic people, even if they've been in contact with someone who has the disease, because the backlog in processing is overwhelming. Other European countries are also struggling to keep up testing and tracing.
Meanwhile in a small cabin in Helsinki airport, for his preferred payment of a morsel of cat food, rescue dog Kossi needs just a few seconds to tell whether someone has coronavirus.
<div id="bfda0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c60b1a0dedbedbe5e0ce44284aff852f"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1308390775328251906" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Covid-19 dogs started their work today at the Helsinki Airport at arrival hall 2B. Dogs have been trained to detect… https://t.co/nw4mrw6eJM</div> — Helsinki Airport (@Helsinki Airport)<a href="https://twitter.com/HelsinkiAirport/statuses/1308390775328251906">1600779644.0</a></blockquote></div><p>If it were left to Kossi and his pals, crowds of potential virus carriers could be cleared in a fraction of the time for a fraction of the cost with none of the physical discomfort that accompanies the current nasal swab test based on the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) method.</p>
No Human Nose Needed<p>A dog can sniff a cloth wiped on a wrist or neck and immediately identify if it comes from someone who has contracted the virus as much as five days before any symptoms appear which would lead a person to go into isolation. "A dog could easily save so so, so many lives," University of Helsinki veterinary researcher Anna Hielm-Bjorkman told DW, who says their testing has shown an accuracy level of nearly 100%.</p><p>It was originally her idea to see whether Kossi, a talented disease-detection dog, could redirect his skills in sniffing out mold, bedbugs and cancer to detecting the new virus just as it started to spread in Europe. "It took him seven minutes to figure out 'okay, this is what you want me to look out for," Hielm-Bjorkman said. "So that totally blew our minds."</p><p>Susanna Paavilainen, the executive director of the Wise Nose scent-detection foundation and the woman who saved Kossi from euthanasia in a Spanish shelter eight years ago, immediately started retraining her dogs to find the coronavirus.</p><p>Miina, who used to track a young girl's blood sugar levels by scent, quickly came on board, along with two others already working in disease detection. In all, they hope to train 15 dogs in the first phase.</p><p>Hielm-Bjorkman said once they discovered the new capabilities, while the normal academic procedure would be to test, publish and get peer-reviewed, their first instinct was to get the dogs into service. "[Researchers] who are actually publishing," she noted wryly, "are not at the airports."</p>
Wags, Not Wages<p>But for that, they needed permission and ideally, some funding. Vantaa Deputy Mayor Timo Aronkyto, who is also responsible for airport security, saw the benefit straight away. "It took me two minutes," he told DW.</p><p>However, his funding options were limited to about $390,000 total for the four-month pilot project aiming to prove that results from the dog tests are at least as accurate as the PCR test. Anyone who tests positive at the voluntary canine site is requested to go to the medical unit for confirmation.</p><p>The interest of Aronkyto, a trained physician, is rooted in both health and wealth. "Our testing at the airport costs more than 1 million [euros] (USD $1.2 million) a month at the moment," he said, explaining he expects that to go up to €3 million (USD. $3.5 million) per month in winter. "These dogs would be much cheaper," he pointed out.</p><p>He's optimistic support will grow as data from the current pilot project accumulates, explaining there is already work underway to change Finnish legislation so eventually sniffer dogs would have the same "authority" as customs dogs.</p><p>Aronkyto anticipates one animal performing both functions in the near future. He plans to continue this level of funding from his city budget into next year but that doesn't train new dogs nor expand the capacity beyond the four that split shifts currently at the airport, even as infection rates rise.</p>
Helsinki Hesitates<p>Notably, however, the Finnish government has not signaled it would like to pick up the program itself, despite a huge surge in publicity and, as Hielm-Bjorkman and Paavilainen emphasize, interest from other countries. Travelers have been eager to participate, waiting in line more than an hour at times.</p><p>Finnish ambassador in Ramallah, Palestine, Paivi Peltokoski, praised the experience after a recent trip but, apparently, her enthusiasm is not overly contagious.</p>
<div id="d9823" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="61d382f115fe66a44eb793d9ebee3d94"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1318564228450615299" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">I was tested negative by two #coronadogs upon arrival at the #Helsinki airport in #Finland. Later a medical test ve… https://t.co/cGlWQn8DJb</div> — Päivi Peltokoski (@Päivi Peltokoski)<a href="https://twitter.com/PaiviPeltokoski/statuses/1318564228450615299">1603205184.0</a></blockquote></div><p>"If the government would see this already as something that they would believe in," Hielm-Bjorkman said, she could envision training hundreds of dogs, stationing sniffers at concert halls or sports matches or elderly care homes. She adds there's a need for a "paradigm shift" for both medical professionals and the public.</p><p>Usually it's doctors telling patients if they're sick, she explained, and "here it's a dog handler."</p>
Little Political Will on German Project<p>This situation is not limited to Finland. In Germany researchers also <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/german-sniffer-dogs-show-promise-at-detecting-coronavirus/a-54300863" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">announced promising results</a> with canines <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/coronavirus-german-military-training-sniffer-dogs/a-54062180" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">detecting COVID-19</a>, but no dogs have been used anywhere so far. And then, says Professor Holger Volk of the University of Veterinary Medicine Hanover, there has been insufficient political will or funding to move the project forward, something he called "very troubling" especially with a resurgent infection rate.</p><p>"When we started this whole project, we we did it because we wanted to help to stop the pandemic," Volk told DW. "It's really has been a very frustrating ride. I have had a lot of naysayers in the whole process. If I wasn't a very determined person, having done a lot of research, I would have probably stopped it."</p><p>He agrees with Hielm-Bjorkman's assessment that "it's just not in the perception of doctors that dogs are able to do this precise work." But he also echoes her faith in the vast potential of their discovery. "If you had a dog who could sniff every day quickly your cohort of workers, for example," he said, "think about the impact. You could continue having a workplace."</p><p>Speaking of workplaces, Susanna Paavilainen is starting to think if Finland doesn't want to unleash the dogs' potential at home, she and Kossi might accept one of the many requests from all over the world to provide training. "We can move because Kossi likes warm weather," she says, petting her star sniffer.</p>
An annual comprehensive report on air pollution showed that it was responsible for 6.67 million deaths worldwide, including the premature death of 500,000 babies, with the worst health outcomes occurring in the developing world, according to the State of Global Air, which was released Wednesday.
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