(Beirut) – The lack of action by authorities to end open burning of waste across Lebanon is posing serious health risks for nearby residents, violating their right to health, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. People living near open burning reported health problems consistent with the frequent and sustained inhalation of smoke from open burning at waste dumps.
The 67-page report, “‘As If You’re Inhaling Your Death’: The Health Risks of Burning Waste in Lebanon,” finds that Lebanese authorities’ lack of effective action to address widespread open burning of waste and a lack of adequate monitoring or information about the health effects violate Lebanon’s obligations under international law. Open burning of waste is dangerous and avoidable, a consequence of the government’s decades-long failure to manage solid waste in a way that respects environmental and health laws designed to protect people. Scientific studies have documented the dangers smoke from the open burning of household waste pose to human health. Children and older people are at particular risk. Lebanon should end the open burning of waste and carry out a sustainable national waste management strategy that complies with environmental and public health best practices and international law.
“Open burning of waste is harming nearby residents’ health one garbage bag at a time, but authorities are doing virtually nothing to bring this crisis under control,” said Nadim Houry, interim Beirut director at Human Rights Watch. “People may think the garbage crisis started in 2015, but this has been going on for decades as the government jumps from one emergency plan to the next while largely ignoring the situation outside Beirut and surrounding areas.”
Lebanon’s mismanagement of its solid waste came to prominence in 2015 after litter piled up on the streets of its capital, but Human Rights Watch found that a silent crisis has affected the rest of the country for decades. Lebanon does not have a solid waste management plan for the entire country. In the 1990s, the central government arranged for waste collection and disposal in Beirut and Mount Lebanon but left other municipalities to fend for themselves without adequate oversight, financial support, or technical expertise. As a result, open dumping and burning increased across the country. According to researchers at the American University of Beirut, 77 percent of Lebanon’s waste is either openly dumped or landfilled even though they estimate that only 10 to 12 percent cannot be composted or recycled.
Human Rights Watch interviewed over 100 residents living near open dumps, public health experts, government officials, doctors, pharmacists, and activists. Researchers also visited 15 locations where burning was reported and used an unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone, to take aerial photographs at three large dump sites. The images showed black soot from recent burns and ash deposits that indicate large burns at an earlier date. Human Rights Watch also documented three cases of open burning adjacent to schools and one case of burning near a hospital.
The Environment Ministry and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) provided Human Rights Watch with a map of 617 municipal solid waste uncontrolled dumps across Lebanon, more than 150 of which are burned at least weekly. According to the Civil Defense, Lebanon’s fire department, open burning also increased in Beirut and Mount Lebanon after the waste management system for those areas collapsed in 2015, including a 330 percent increase in Mount Lebanon. The open burning disproportionately takes place in lower income areas, the map revealed.
The vast majority of residents interviewed reported health effects that they attributed to the burning and inhalation of smoke from the open burning of waste, including respiratory issues such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, coughing, throat irritation, and asthma. These symptoms are consistent with exposure to open burning of waste documented in an extensive body of scientific literature.
“It’s like there’s fog across the whole town,” said Othman, a resident of Kfar Zabad who is identified only by his first name. “We are coughing all the time, unable to breathe, sometimes we wake up and see ash in our spit.”
People living near open burning said 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 said they moved away to avoid the potential health effects.
Families said that uncertainty over whether the burning would lead to more serious health effects for themselves of their children, such as cancer, was taking a heavy psychological toll. In almost all cases, interviewees said their municipality had not provided any information about the risks of open burning or safety precautions. The Lebanese government should provide adequate information about the dangers of waste burning and steps people should be taking to protect themselves from smoke, Human Rights Watch said.
Residents also expressed frustration that, despite repeated complaints to the municipalities where burning was taking place, burning continued and no one was held to account. Municipal officials outside of Beirut and Mount Lebanon said the central government was not providing adequate financial or technical support to manage waste more responsibly and was late in disbursing their share of the Independent Municipal Fund in recent years.
The Environment Ministry says that open burning of waste violates Lebanon’s own environmental protection laws. The government’s lack of effective action to address the issue also violates Lebanon’s obligations under international law, including the government’s duties to respect, protect, and fulfill the right to health. The Environment Ministry appears to lack the necessary personnel and financial resources for effective environmental monitoring.
Lebanon’s cabinet approved a draft law in 2012 that would create a single Solid Waste Management Board, headed by the Environment Ministry, responsible for the national-level decision-making and waste treatment, while leaving waste collection to local authorities. However, parliament has not passed the bill.
Lebanon should adopt a long-term plan for waste management for the entire country that takes into account the associated environmental and health consequences, Human Rights Watch said.
Recent discussions around a long-term plan for waste management in Lebanon have focused on the use of incineration plants. Although Human Rights Watch does not take a position on the particular waste management approach that Lebanon should pursue, some public health experts and activists in Lebanon have opposed the use of incineration, citing concerns about independent monitoring, potential emissions, and high costs.
“One of the most distressing parts of this crisis is the almost total lack of information residents have received about the health risks of living near burning sites,” Houry said. “People have a right to know about any potential dangers in their environment, and Lebanon should be testing the impact of the waste management crisis on the safety of the air, soil, and water and make those results public.”