[This report was originally issued by Human Rights Watch on 1 December 2017]
"It’s like there’s fog across the whole town. We are coughing all the time, unable to breathe, sometimes we wake up and see ash in our spit. The intensity of the smell would cause us to become dizzy.”
—Othman, Kfar Zabad, February 16, 2017
“When they burn we can’t breathe.... We’ve had to go to the hospital because of this.”
— Mohamed, Kfar Zabad, February 16, 2017
Open burning of waste is a dangerous and avoidable practice that takes place across Lebanon. Because it risks causing a range of short and long-term health problems, it implicates the Lebanese government’s legal obligations to protect the health of its citizens. In Lebanon, open burning is a consequence of the government’s failure to manage solid waste in a way that respects environmental and health laws designed to protect people. Children and older persons are at particular risk.
Open burning of waste occurs when existing waste management plans break down, such as occurred in Beirut and surrounding Mount Lebanon during a 2015 waste management crisis that saw garbage piling up in the streets. But it is also the result of the central government’s prioritization of waste collection and disposal in Beirut and Mount Lebanon, which produce just half of Lebanon’s municipal solid waste, while leaving other municipalities to fend for themselves without adequate financial support, technical expertise, and oversight.
The open burning of waste in Lebanon may have serious consequences for the health of people living nearby. A range of scientific studies have documented the dangers that emissions from the open burning of household waste pose to human health. These include exposure to fine particles, dioxins, volatile organic compounds, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon, and polychlorinated biphenyls, which have been linked to heart disease, cancer, skin diseases, asthma, and respiratory illnesses. The dangers of open burning of waste are compounded by the fact that Lebanon often does not properly dispose of industrial and healthcare waste, which may be mixed into the municipal solid waste stream.
Human Rights Watch found that those living near open burning reported an array of health problems consistent with the frequent and sustained inhalation of smoke from the open burning of waste. These included chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, coughing, throat irritation, skin conditions, and asthma. In many cases, interviewees described a temporal relationship between the burning of waste and their health condition; some developed a condition after the burning started or they moved to an area where burning was taking place. Others said their symptoms subsided after a municipality stopped burning or they moved away from an area where burning was taking place.
Because of its detrimental impact on health, the burning of waste triggers Lebanon’s obligations under international human rights law. Lebanon is a party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which requires it to take steps to achieve “the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.”
While other factors may play some part in these illnesses, the extent of air pollution from the open burning of waste, the correlation between these conditions and periods of open burning, and interviews with doctors and other public health experts suggest a causal relationship between air pollution from the open burning of waste and poor community health.
Ten doctors told Human Rights Watch that they believed the open burning of waste was causing respiratory illnesses. Doctors in and near Beirut often noted an increase in respiratory illness cases in areas that began burning waste after the 2015 waste management crisis.
People living near open garbage dumps in Lebanon explained how the burning of waste gravely affected other aspects of their lives: they were unable to spend time outside, had difficulty sleeping because of air pollution, or had to vacate their homes when burning was taking place. Some residents reported moving permanently to a different location to avoid the potential health effects of open burning of waste.
Leila, who lives in Sin el Fil in Beirut, described how burning of waste near her apartment since the summer of 2016, and ongoing at the time of the interview in November 2016, was affecting her:
It starts with the smell. And then this white smoke begins rising, and it encircles our building. The burning usually starts at night and lasts until dawn. I immediately run to the balcony, take in the laundry, and lock all the windows, all the doors. But the smell, the smoke, it stays there. We can’t turn on the air conditioning. We can’t sleep. We stay awake until the morning and we [feel like we are] suffocating. This happened last night, starting at midnight. It’s too much. Even when I leave the area it’s as if the smoke is still inside my lungs.
The vast majority of residents interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported health effects that they attributed to the burning and inhalation of smoke from the open burning of waste. Thirty-eight people said they were suffering from respiratory issues including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, coughing, throat irritation, and asthma. According to an extensive body of scientific literature, these symptoms are consistent with exposure to open burning of waste. Thirty-two individuals had sought medical treatment for these respiratory illnesses, and two said that a doctor or hospital had prescribed oxygen masks.
Human Rights Watch also documented three cases in which open burning was taking place directly adjacent to schools. At one of the schools, near Naameh, administrators said that garbage was being dumped and burned across the street from the school for four days during October 2016, causing them to adopt emergency measures and send children home.
At three large dump sites, Human Rights Watch used an unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone, to take aerial photographs. At each site, the images showed black scars from recent burns and ash deposits that indicate large burns on an earlier date.
In addition to the immediate health concerns, some families said that uncertainty over whether the burning would lead to more serious health effects, including cancer, was taking a heavy psychological toll. In only one case did an interviewee say that the municipality had provided their family with information about the risks of open burning and safety precautions to take. As a result, many expressed fear about the unknown risks and concern about the potential impact of the burning on their health and the health of their children. Parents expressed frustration that they were not able to protect their children from the potential health effects of the burning.