Search
Search

Q&A

Environmental expert: ‘No action has yet been taken’ to deal with the danger of asbestos in the Beirut port blast debris

Samar Khalil, an environmental management specialist and a member of the Waste Management Coalition — a group of civil society organizations and independent experts in Lebanon — discusses efforts to deal with asbestos exposed in the aftermath of the Beirut port explosion

Environmental expert: ‘No action has yet been taken’ to deal with the danger of asbestos in the Beirut port blast debris

“We … tried to alert the authorities so that the asbestos problem was tackled in the most responsible way possible,” Khalil said.

Eight months have passed since the Aug. 4 explosion at the Beirut port, and yet no measures have been taken to deal with the risks posed by asbestos found in certain buildings and debris collected from the port’s perimeter, Samar Khalil says. The environmental management specialist and member of the Waste Management Coalition — a group of civil society organizations and independent experts in Lebanon — talks to Le Commerce du Levant about the inaction of the Lebanese authorities and exhorts those authorities to exercise their responsibility in dealing with the situation.

* * *

How is the waste that was discharged by the explosion being handled?

Several organizations and associations have been involved in this process. But this is a complicated matter as the waste and rubble that were generated by the Beirut port blast are of different kinds, each requiring a specific treatment.

At the end of last year, the European Union and the United Nations Development Program submitted assessment reports to the Lebanese authorities, proposing various solutions to recover and reuse the waste from the port.

In the neighborhoods that were affected by the blast, several NGOs and associations, including Arcenciel, recovered some of the scrap metal, glass and wood for recycling.

The government signed a $3.6 million contract — $2 million of which is being paid by Lebanon — with the German [industrial handling and storage] company Combi Lift to clear hazardous and toxic materials from the port. The hazardous substances are now in containers and ready to be shipped to countries where they can be reprocessed.

One major problem persists, however, which is the presence of asbestos in some of the rubble and debris collected in the vicinity of the blast zone, mainly in and around the port.

As a coalition handling waste issues, we were aware of the risks and tried to alert the authorities so that the asbestos problem was tackled in the most responsible way possible.

We called for a specific procedure to be put in place for those who would be in direct contact with the material, and above all specific measures for the safe disposal of asbestos.

Despite discussions with the [Beirut] Municipality and the Ministry of the Environment, nothing has been done yet, and by now other waste or materials have already been contaminated with asbestos [fibers].

How do we know that asbestos is present in the debris generated from the explosion?

The EU study found that asbestos was present in large sections of the port buildings as it had commonly been used in construction materials for roofing and inwall coatings in the warehouses.

According to samples taken by EU experts, 77 percent of the [cement] products [in the port area] that were tested contained chrysotile, or “white asbestos.”

White asbestos is a nonflammable, rot-proof fibrous mineral that is now banned in about 30 countries as it poses a health hazard. It was used for decades in [construction material], especially in reinforced cement.

Crocidolite, [or blue asbestos], was also found in products, but to a lesser extent.

Where exactly was asbestos waste found?

Experts have detected asbestos in [port] warehouses where food was stored. Foodstuffs were later moved, but there is a possibility that they were contaminated.

It was detected mostly in the waste and debris around the port. Other contaminated waste was found in a vacant lot used temporarily to store debris, near a sports field in Karm al-Zeitoun.

Ramco, the company responsible for waste collection and management, has told the Beirut Municipality that it cannot transfer the stored debris to the sorting center at the Karantina landfill, or the dump opposite the Bakalian Flour Mills, where debris from the port is normally ground up. The municipality has purportedly alerted the Environment Ministry and the Beirut governor.

These waste materials are contaminated, and touching them is dangerous. As far as we know, no action has yet been taken to address this issue, although it was already red-flagged in the EU report.

The government has yet to designate a site for the safe disposal of this waste and set forth a plan to this effect. At this stage, we still do not know whether the government or the local authorities will, for once, assume responsibility for this serious health issue.

How is asbestos hazardous to people's health?

If inhaled, asbestos fibers can settle in the lungs and cause respiratory diseases. Some diseases are quite benign, but others can be much more serious, such as lung cancer, pleural cancer and fibrosis. This is particularly dangerous for firefighters, port workers and other people who come in contact with asbestos waste. It is imperative that they are protected.


This article was originally published in French. Translation by Sahar Ghoussoub.


Eight months have passed since the Aug. 4 explosion at the Beirut port, and yet no measures have been taken to deal with the risks posed by asbestos found in certain buildings and debris collected from the port’s perimeter, Samar Khalil says. The environmental management specialist and member of the Waste Management Coalition — a group of civil society organizations and independent experts...