Lebanon: Electricity shortages linked to surge in respiratory illnesses

Carcinogens levels in the air rise as more Lebanese rely on highly polluting generators for power

Collapse of Lebanon’s electricity sector causes rising pollution and respiratory illness

Collapse of Lebanon’s electricity sector causes rising pollution and respiratory illness
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More Lebanese are visiting hospital emergency rooms with severe respiratory problems, which doctors have linked to pollution from diesel generators used in homes for electricity.

Even people with no history of respiratory problems are wheezing, coughing and developing bronchial irritation, said Dr Zeina Aoun, a pulmonologist.

“My asthmatic patients are suffering increased relapses that cannot be controlled with their usual medicine and have to go more often to emergency rooms,” Dr Aoun told The National.

“Generators are working 24/7. This has never happened before."

Lebanese have always relied on the highly polluting diesel generators run by private neighbourhood operators to make up for shortfalls in electricity supply from the state utility.

Electricite du Liban has not produced enough power to meet demand since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war.

But the power cuts used to be limited and scheduled, ranging from three hours a day in the capital to up to 12 hours a day in other regions.

Even then, generators represented a source of significant air pollution.

But the near-collapse of the national grid, since the country’s worst financial crisis hit in late 2019, has increased the duration of power cuts to all but a few hours in the day.

Studies carried out by Najat Aoun Saliba, a chemistry professor at the American University of Beirut, showed that carcinogens in the air increased by 40 per cent when generators were running.

Generators are now in operation for much longer.

“We expect pollution to increase eight-fold and carcinogens by 300 per cent,” said Ms Saliba, who has calculated that there are 8,000 private generators in Beirut, or one for every two buildings.

“Carcinogen materials remain suspended in the air after heavy particles settle down,” she noted.

We are being murdered every day
Najat Aoun Saliba, chemist

The consequences on people's health are dire.

Darine El Helweh, a media professional, has twins who are 2 years and 10 months old.

They had asthma diagnosed last March and have been shuttling in and out of the emergency room since. “Doctors believe that the trigger is the pollution from generators,” she said. “They cough like old smokers.”

Dany Moudallal, 21, a student said that in recent months he has started using asthma medication, including salbutamol, or Ventolin, three times a day instead of once every few days.

Like many Lebanese, he asks relatives to bring the drugs from abroad whenever they visit.

Even medicines are in short supply because the financial crisis.

The price of whatever is available has skyrocketed as the cash-strapped government lifts subsidies.

“I can’t imagine what someone who does not have the means to buy medication can do. You could die from an asthma attack,” Mr Moudallal said.

As fuel supplies dry up, some generator owners have had to stop operating completely, causing blackouts in vast areas of Lebanon and putting the lives of hospital patients at risk.

Mrs El Helweh said she felt powerless to help her children, even though she has followed her doctor’s advice to move to the mountains outside Beirut to escape the pollution.

But electricity supply remains a concern as her twins, Nay and Iyan, need to use a nebuliser machine several times a day. “It’s the first time that I feel that I can do nothing for my kids,” she said.

Ms Saliba said the problem of air pollution needed to be addressed urgently.

The current levels of pollution are expected to result in an additional 550 cancer cases, an estimated 3,000 people developing chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases and approximately 500 hospital admissions for cardiovascular problems including strokes per year, she said.

This could generate an additional healthcare cost of around $8 million a year for Lebanon’s cash-strapped health sector.

Lebanese politicians have repeatedly failed to address the country’s financial crisis and are embroiled in political bickering. There has been no fully-functioning government since a devastating explosion at Beirut’s port on August 4, 2020.

“We are being murdered every day. I hope that UN agencies or human rights organisations will stop this government and hold them accountable,” Ms Saliba said.

“Regular citizens cannot replace the government and create their own power plants. I don’t want to think of the future if we continue at the same pace.”

Updated: August 17, 2021, 9:41 AM