The Beirut Blast: A Time Bomb From a Decade Past

By Ahmed Al-Madwahi; Allan Fattah; Kareem Kiwan; Yara Mourad; Akram Yassin

The Beirut blast that took place on the 4th of August, 2020, was the result of the combustion of 2750 tons of ammonium nitrate; leading to the deaths of at least 200 citizens, the injury of 6,500, and the displacement of 300,000. It caused, approximately, five billion dollars’ worth of damages, having destroyed the port, along with dense residential and commercial areas. Moreover, the combustion of ammonium nitrate led to the release of hazardous chemicals into the atmosphere. The mismanagement of ammonium nitrate from the first day they were stored at the port until their explosion was the main reason behind the occurrence of this catastrophe. This disaster could have been avoided if the government had taken the proper measures ever since the ammonium nitrate arrived at the port back in 2013.

A timeline of events leading to and proceeding the blast is as follows: In October 2013, a ship containing the ammonium nitrate arrived at the port of Beirut. Two years later, in October 2015 the ammonium nitrate was then moved from the ship to the warehouse at the port. On the 4th of August 2020, the stored ammonium nitrate explosion was destroyed in its wake. Approximately one month later on the 10th of September, a large fire broke out at the port. This leads to the present day, April 2021 where the investigations about the explosion are still ongoing.

Ammonium nitrate is a chemical compound that is produced in the form of little beads and once these beads absorb water, they tend to cluster up forming structures similar to rock bulks in this form they are significantly more dangerous and can easily trigger an explosion. In addition, storing the chemicals as close as they were to residential areas dramatically increased the extent of damage that occurred. 

The ammonium nitrate was not the only hazardous chemical that had been improperly stored at the port. As a result of this improper storage, a lot of the chemicals have been exposed to one another, such as Methyl Bromide, Hydrochloric Acid, Peracetic acid, and Acetone, amongst others.

All these findings reflect that the Beirut port had been plagued with improper management relating to inefficient storage conditions of these hazardous chemicals, the lack of enforcement of local legislation, poor transparency of the port’s activities, and the disregard for the international guidelines. Furthermore, the port’s management is also subjected to forms of corruption and manipulation by different powers as a direct consequence of the state of the country.

Methods:

A comprehensive literature review of the peer-reviewed and grey literature was conducted. Scholarly articles (PubMed, Web of Science, Google scholar), UN reports, social media, news reports, and documentaries published between August 4, 2020, and March 20, 2021, were reviewed. A thematic analysis was carried out to identify the flaws in the management system.

Results & Discussion:

Ammonium nitrate had been a public health threat since the first day it was stored in Beirut’s port, seven years ago. This was due to its storage near a densely populated area, in a closed facility right next to fireworks, and under conditions that continuously exposed it to moisture. Moreover, it was stored without any official documentation from the port authority or the army responsible for national security. Additionally, the absence of basic safety measures, on-site fire drill alarms, and the lack of automatic sprinkler systems within the facility allowed this catastrophe to happen. Had existing International and National Regulations on the storage of hazardous chemicals been implemented and controlled, the blast could have been avoided. 

Conclusion & Recommendations:

Lessons learned from previous explosions and reports from international agencies recommend the implementation of proper quality-monitoring programs to prevent future occurrences, and adequate emergency preparedness plans to mitigate the aftereffects. Moreover, the World Bank suggested that prevention and mitigation should begin with the implementation of a new port system. Finally, the catastrophic effects that resulted from the blast were only a symptom of the true underlying problem, mismanagement. Moving forward and despite all the socio-economic challenges that the country is facing, it is crucial to establish a system that prioritizes people’s safety and well-being to prevent future tragedies from reoccurring. 

One thought on “The Beirut Blast: A Time Bomb From a Decade Past

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