Beirut Needs a Break. It needs Us.

By Abir Hajj Houssein & Amira Fawaz

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“My daughter, are you still here?  They destroyed Beirut and its dreams. Nothing left for you in this country except devastation, corruption, and pollution. If we have any hope left, even a little, it is from believing in your generation.” The old, man was gazing at me with sorrow in his eyes by the seashore. That day, I was watching Beirut’s seashore after the blast, where I met him. August 4, a day not to forget, and we will not, but what is the point of going on?   As someone from this community, I felt responsible to stand up for the sake of preserving our country. I decided to highlight and look more into one of the several encountered problems of the blast. We, a group of chemists, took the opportunity to raise awareness of the ongoing water pollution with the scientific approach.

 Beirut’s blast had a remarkable impact on Lebanon in regard to different aspects such as its high mortality rate, economic recession, and medical and medicinal shortages.  However, it also affected the environment by causing  air, water, and soil pollution. “Did you see the orange mushroom cloud?  It was unbelievable, till now I am scared, that day I rushed home and closed all the windows,” said the old man. After the blast, scientists detected high air pollution due to the ammonium nitrate, which is the primary chemical compound cause of the blast. It released air pollutants like nitrogen oxides (NOx) and ammonia (NH3). However, after two days, the dangerous pollutants became limited in the sky.

“Oh, the mess! I can’t believe this is happening. We are already living on a pile of garbage, and now it’s contaminated. Oh, the headache” exclaimed the old man. We do not have extensive data on environmental contamination after the blast, but Lebanon already struggles with garbage disposal owing to a shortage of landfills, as well as high levels of pollution in soil-water from untreated sewage. Other countries implemented several techniques on how to deal with hazardous waste, and by that they evaded the issues Lebanon is facing.

 “ What a lovely view our sea is! So, unfortunate what is being done to it!” We do not have specific reports on pollution measurements in the Mediterranean Sea surrounding Lebanon, but we can compare it to other blasts in other countries. In China, the Environmental Protection Bureau reported that a blast in Tianjin, caused by the chemicals sodium cyanide, ammonium nitrate, and potassium nitrate, resulted in a high level of surface water pollution.

 We can also speculate on the severity of the polluted seawater by finding the possible effects of the scattered chemicals during the Beirut blast. Thus, we have found that seeping hazardous chemicals into the sea could harm marine life. For one thing, Nitrogen dioxides (NO2)can interfere in many reactions. However, we must look at the core of the chemical reaction to understand the effects of NO2on sea salts. Wave action generates these salts, which in turn produce water droplets. Anyone walking on the shore can feel them.  The evaporation of water during its movement leaves only the solids. One of these, sodium chloride (NaCl), reacts with NO2 giving nitrosyl chloride (ClNO). In its turn, this often dissociates* in the water to give dichloride (Cl2),  and nitrogen oxide (NO). Thus, the hydrolysis* of water in the presence of these compounds will form hydrochloric acid (HCl), and nitrous acid (HNO2). The rate of this reaction will increase when there is a high humidity and a high amount of NO2. The excess of HCl will lower some metabolic processes and lead to respiratory and feeding problems. As a result, it will limit the diversity of marine organisms. 

Another reaction in sea water, nitrification, is a process where some bacteria produce NO2and others decompose it. In most cases, this process is balanced. However, the excess of NOperturbs this balance. 

On the other hand, extra nitrate boosts eutrophication, an overgrowth of algae and water plants. Ecosystems cannot handle this overgrowth caused by the presence of excess amounts of nitrogen and phosphorous. This abnormality contaminates water, thus decreases the quality of foods, and later affects marine and human life. Besides, this excess minimizes the amount of dissolved oxygen resulted in fish death and illnesses. The old man sighed, “Every Sunday morning, I grab my fishing kit and a book and head to the shore. Then, in the evening, my family and I enjoy the fresh fish. But now, I am afraid to eat them.” 

Algae can also generate toxic bacteria that pollute water. Even humans will be affected when they are in contact with this contaminated water during swimming for example. In addition, small organics produced from these algae form a layer on the surface of water that will prohibit the sun entering to the depths.

On the morning of September 30, Beirut woke up to an environmental disaster where thousands of dead fish were found washed up on the shore at Jnah. The exact causes are not known, but from above we can speculate why. 

Other pollutants can have effects. For instance, some heavy metals that resulted from the blast can lower fish fertility and change their behavior. Consequently, humans consuming on these fish will be affected.Another toxic chemical present in the port is picric acid. And when reduced to picramic acid and 2,4-DNP in water, they showed higher toxicity to marine organisms. Also, Hydrofluoric acid, made of hydrogen fluoride, is a poisonous acid that contain health risks to humans and animals by severely damaging their tissues. In high exposure, it may cause mortality.

These all pose as assumptions to the possible pollutants present in our beloved sea. We need more extensive research and direct sampling from different seawater depths to estimate pollution severity. Then, we can propose adequate solutions. Lebanon does not lack the minds to change its fate. It is the responsibility and obligation of everyone, especially our generation. We know from our studies, but we only need the courage and the creativity to implement and apply them to our surroundings. Let us be the future of Lebanon.

*Hydrolysis, hydro means water and lysis means “to break down”, is a reaction in water where chemicals dissociates/ separates into smaller fractions or pieces.


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Second Authors:

  • Alaa Al Mikkawi
  • Abdel Aziz Kordieh
  • Carl Zoghzoghi
  • Christelle Rassi
  • Jawad Hmayed
  • Malak El Kassamani
  • Marc Darazi
  • Mohammad Asaad 
  • Mohammad Daoud 
  • Nadeen Abbas

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