Dust storm at destroyed Beirut port raises health concerns

Lebanon’s leading air pollution expert issues warning about residents’ exposure to carcinogenic asbestos fibres

An aerial view shows the massive damage done to Beirut port's grain silos (C) and the area around it on August 5, 2020, one day after a mega-blast tore through the harbour in the heart of the Lebanese capital with the force of an earthquake, killing more than 100 people and injuring over 4,000. - Rescuers searched for survivors in Beirut in the morning after a cataclysmic explosion at the port sowed devastation across entire neighbourhoods, killing more than 100 people, wounding thousands and plunging Lebanon deeper into crisis. (Photo by - / AFP)
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Images of a dust storm at Beirut port were circulated widely on Wednesday amid renewed health fears about residents’ exposure to carcinogenic asbestos fibres, about three months after a deadly blast destroyed thousands of buildings and killed at least 190 people.

“There are a lot of hazardous chemicals at the port, including asbestos,” said Najat Saliba, head of the atmospheric and analytical lab at the American University of Beirut.

Videos shared online showed clouds of dust rising several metres above the damaged port.

The National was not able to verify them independently.

Documents released by the United Nations after the August 4 explosion show that asbestos is one of many hazardous materials found at the port.

Other dangerous chemicals include hydrofluoric acid oxidizer – a highly corrosive chemical that removes stains from metal – and bleaching agents such as benzoyl peroxide and calcium hypochlorite.

The Lebanese authorities said that the blast was accidentally caused by a welder working in a warehouse where 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate were stored.

“If people are close to the area and see the dust coming their way, they should close their windows and not go outside,” Ms Saliba said.

People who do go out should wear double masks at least, she said.

In late August, leading experts told The National that there could be an increase in lung cancer cases in the coming years among residents and volunteers who helped clean up after the blast owing to asbestos exposure.

Some buildings that were constructed in the second half of the 20th century contain asbestos, particularly in suspended ceilings, corrugated cement roofs and water pipes.

However, their number is not known.

Some local journalists said that the dust storm reminded them of the port disaster.

Sky News producer Salman Andary posted pictures of the explosion online and said the dust storm “came as a message to everyone that they should never, ever forget what happened on August 4”.

Several fires that occurred at the port in recent weeks also raised concerns.

On September 10, a massive blaze engulfed the port for hours, causing panic among residents already traumatised by the explosion.

At the time, private companies said the fire was a result of lax oversight of repair work.