BEIRUT: Power cuts followed by the din of diesel generators and the resulting harmful emissions have always been a feature of Beirut. However, the increased outages in recent weeks have seen power generators operating for longer periods, exacerbating the ill effects on the health of the city’s residents and prompting many health specialists to voice their alarm.
“They [generators] release soot and black carbon, which can penetrate deep into the body,” Najat Saliba, an award-winning scientist and the head of the atmospheric and analytic lab at the American University of Beirut, told The Daily Star. “Whether you smoke or not you’ll be inhaling the same toxins”
Saliba said emissions from generators were already responsible for about 40 percent of the air pollution in Beirut before the recently increased outages, when they were running for just three hours a day. The dramatic increase in generator usage over the past few weeks would have seen air pollution in Beirut skyrocketing, she added.
Just as concerning is the fact that in Beirut generators are often placed beside residential apartment buildings, whereas other countries, such as France, require generators to be positioned further away from people’s homes due to the dangerous fumes released.
According to Saliba, the increased use of generators in Beirut has alarmed the World Health Organization due to their contribution to air pollution.
That alarm is well-founded because the health impact of air pollution is startling, according to Myriam Mrad, who has been researching air pollution and its effect on health as an associate professor at Balamand University since 2012.
Mrad told The Daily Star that a soon-to-be-published study on the impact of air pollution in Beirut revealed that spikes in air pollution are accompanied by spikes in admissions to hospitals for children and elderly people with respiratory, cardiovascular and skin diseases.
For adults, the impact of increased air pollution isn’t as immediate, but spikes in admissions for similar conditions often occur five or six days after surges in air pollution.
Dr. Emile Mehanna, a cardiology specialist at Lebanese American University Medical Center- Rizk Hospital, told The Daily Star that when air pollution increases there is a greater risk of acute cardiovascular events such as heart attacks and strokes.
Mrad predicted that increased air pollution in the last month will have led to some avoidable tragedies. “We need to breathe, we cannot buy clean air,” she lamented.
Due to the immediate impact of air pollution on the health of vulnerable people, Mrad said they should be contacted on days when air pollution rises and urged to stay at home.
The long-term impact of air pollution is equally troubling. For example, Mrad said, one in four skin diseases among children in Beirut could be avoided if air pollution was brought down to a safe level, and that requires a dramatic reduction.
Mrad’s research in Beirut found that air pollution exceeded the WHO’s limit on safe air pollution 133 days of the year, whereas the organization warns that cities should exceed safe air pollution limits no more than three days per year.
Even in the midst of Lebanon’s lockdown when people took to social media to celebrate the temporary clear skies above Beirut, Saliba said the amount of nitrogen dioxide in Beirut’s air fell only by 30 percent, much less than in other large cities around the world under lockdown.
Saliba said this was because generators were still operating to supply power to homes even though businesses were shut down and traffic had vanished.
Asked about potential solutions to the problem, Saliba let out a long sigh.
She has been publishing research on air pollution in Lebanon for 21 years, and in her opinion reining in Beirut’s pollution was not exactly complicated: Replace the generators with 24-hour electricity.
However, with power cuts and generators having been the norm in Lebanon for decades, she wasn’t too optimist that a solution would be found soon. “All these publications never resonate with the government,” she said.