Gaza (Al-Hal newspaper) – Umm Mohammad Khawaja was unaware that the locally-made detergents she uses can cause skin conditions that may never heal. A resident of al-Shatei refugee camp, she has been buying detergents from street vendors in an attempt to save money; but with repeated use, white-colored inflammations have started to appear on her hands and fingers.
Umm Mohammad consulted a doctor, who advised her not to use detergents in abundance, she says. But this is impossible, she stresses, because she is a housewife and needs to fulfill her duties like other mothers, as she put it.
We brought photos of Umm Mohammad’s condition to Dr. Majdi Naim, a dermatologist at Al-Shifaa Hospital in Gaza, who suggested that she probably had a fungal infection and may have had an allergic reaction to certain chemicals. However, he added, nothing could be confirmed until a fungal culture is performed to determine the exact nature of her condition.
Meanwhile, Ahmad cannot earn a living by other means than making detergents, at a time of soaring inflation in the Gaza Strip. He is not interested in owning a big factory, and all he possesses is a shop piled high with items that I first thought were rubbish.
His shop is littered with detergents without any order or regard for cleanliness and safety. There are four barrels for grease removers, shampoos, and washing-up liquids, which Ahmad concocts by hand. Outside his shop, dirty canvas bags are stuffed full of empty soda bottles; despite this unsightly scene, Ahmad distributes his merchandise to numerous stores in the markets and also sells to his neighbors.
In the Gaza Strip, which has a population of nearly 1.5 million, many illegal home-based factories now produce detergents, soap, and shampoo. But their products are far from meeting the standards and specifications put in place.
According to figures from the Ministry of National Economy, 24 plants are licensed to produce these household items, but the ministry has no figures on the number of unlicensed plants. An unscientific poll conducted for this journalist on a random sample of 75 individuals showed that 65 percent of surveyed women use homemade detergents. Meanwhile, the ministry and other regulatory authorities appear unable to curb this phenomenon, due to the weak inspection capacities of its personnel.
For seven years now, Ahmad has been making shampoo, grease removers, floor cleaners and dishwashing liquid. He has also been diluting and bottling bleach and sulfuric acid. Ahmad learned how to make detergents from his father, and went on to master the trade and develop his own techniques. The small plant he operates bears no external signs indicating the nature of his business.
Ahmad packages his dishwashing liquid in bottles, using surplus containers from soda bottling companies. He also has his own product, which he sells in plastic bottles carrying a label that shows its specifications and brand name, which we will identify here only with the letter “R.”
A sample of the shampoo from Ahmad’s factory underwent laboratory analysis, and failed two tests: In the acidity test, the shampoo was found to have a pH of 4.97, while normal pH should range from 5.5 to 8.5. The concentration of sodium chloride, or table salt, was found to be 5 percent, compared to a maximum permitted concentration of 2 percent. The shampoo passed only one test: the active ingredient test.
The test results were presented to Mohammad Askalani, head of Scientific Research and Community Service at the College of Science and Technology in Khan Yunis. Askalani said that the pH in the shampoo sample was too low.
He explained: “The pH level must not be lower than 5.5. In the sample, it was 4.7, which has a negative effect on hair and is also conducive to bacterial growth and contamination.” Regarding sodium chloride, Askalani said: “salt, or what is known as sodium chloride, was found to be in high concentration in the shampoo. Gaza’s water is already salty, and the excess salt in the sample will damage hair, while repeated use can impact hair health and growth.”
Kamal hails from another district in the Gaza Strip and has been selling detergents since 1993, having the learned the trade from his brother who owns a detergent-making plant. He has a diploma in medical analysis and a Bachelor’s degree in Social Work and concocts the detergents close to where he sells his products:
Kamal explained: “We increase concentration to suit the sea water. Sea water is salty (hard), so if we don’t increase the concentration then we won’t be able to get a good lather.”
I took several pictures of the plant and a sample of the dishwashing liquid, and brought it to the laboratory at al-Azhar University. The results showed that the product did not comply with the standards and specifications put forth by the Ministry of Economy.
Abdul Basset Abu Kweik, a chemist, pointed out that the dishwashing liquid sample failed compliance tests for more than one reason. First, the concentration of the active ingredient was 12 percent, which is less than required, probably due to an attempt at defrauding consumers. Regarding the acidity of the product, the pH should be close to 8.6, he said, and any pH value lower than that – as was the case with the sample – would cause skin dryness.
Concerning salt content, he said that most manufacturers put table salt in their products to increase the viscosity of liquid soap. “Consumers like products that are viscous,” Abu Kweik explained, “so manufacturers cheat them by using salt to make their products more appealing. However, a concentration higher than 2 percent is not permissible, as it can result in dry skin.”
In the survey conducted for this investigation in January 2012 on a random sample of 75 individuals, we found that 25 percent of households in Gaza used cleaning materials selling at under 3 shekels (less than a dollar), while 75 percent used cleaning products selling at 3 to 10 shekels. Moreover, 60 percent of homemakers were found to be using locally-made cleaning products. The survey also showed that 45 percent need new cleaning products every two to six weeks, while 39 percent use one container of cleaning product per week.
The poll showed that the most commonly-used cleaning agents were dishwashing gel and liquid (61 percent), while shampoo came second (23 percent). Meanwhile, skin conditions affecting homemakers ranged from persistent allergic reactions to skin irritation and itching. When asked whether these resulted from cleaning products, 33 percent of respondents said they had been affected, while 67 percent said had not.
Table listing cleaning products made by both licensed and unlicensed plants, and their prices:
● Cleaning products made by licensed plants
● Homemade cleaning products
● Dishwashing gel and liquid (ranging between 3.5 to 13 shekels)
● Dishwashing gel and liquid (no more than 3 shekels)
● Toilet cleaner (ranging in price from 7 to 8 shekels)
● Toilet cleaner (no more than 5 shekels)
● Shampoo (from 10 to 13 shekels per liter)
● Shampoo (6 shekels per liter)
In 2011, the poverty rate in the Gaza Strip stood at 38.8 percent (according to consumption patterns), with 67.1 percent of the population living below the national poverty line, according to their monthly income. Moreover, the monthly income of 55.9 percent of the population signifies that they are living below the extreme poverty line, according to a survey on household spending and consumption published by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics in 2011.
The same figures show that the poverty line for a five-member family was 2,293 shekels (about $637) for that same year, while consumer price inflation rose to 5.7 percent in the Gaza Strip, according to the annual publication of prices by the same bureau.
According to Dr. Hassan Tammous, some chemicals might cause eczema or an allergic reaction in certain people, but not everyone. He stressed that only people with knowledge and experience should handle these chemicals.
Tammous said that contact with some of the chemicals contained in the detergents can cause a condition known as contact dermatitis, but they are not the main cause of the condition. Furthermore, allergies to cleaning products vary from one area of the body to another. Tammous also noted that chlorine, which is hot to the touch, contains sodium hydroxide, which can also cause contact dermatitis and damage clothes as well as washing machines.
Alaa Musleh, executive director of the Syndicate of Chemical Industries, said that “nearly 30 facilities, including plants, companies and suppliers of raw materials for detergents are members of the Union, employing nearly 150 workers,”. He said that only those with proper legal documents and credentials can join the organization.
Raji Muslem, director general of the Palestinian Standards and Specifications Institute in Gaza, said that standards are updated every five years and whenever needed. He explained that the institute tried to stay out of the divisions between Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in the Gaza Strip: “The situation in Gaza is difficult. The institute did not close its doors during the past five years, but the work is not satisfying and the institute exists for emergency cases only.”
Muslem went on to say that the institute was not a regulatory body, and stressed that amendments to specifications do not necessarily take place regularly, but only as needed and according to international amendments.
Engineer Nafeth al-Kahlout, head of the Chemicals Division at the Consumer Protection Department for Services and Prices at the Ministry of Economy said: “Any product the department finds on the market is subsequently tested. If it complies with Palestinian standards according to type, composition and labeling, it will be deemed fit for use. If not, the flaw is pointed out to manufacturers in order to be rectified.”
According to Kahlout, the department sends the samples collected by inspectors for testing. The procedure is not tied to a specific number of samples. “Domestic factories must be followed up on,” Kahlout said, “but according to the samples we receive, more work is required, and there are many goods in circulation that are not subject to the required follow up.”
Kahlout drew attention to the hazardous nature of certain chemicals, which he said should not be present in high concentration in households, as they can be harmful to mucous membranes, hands, eyes and the skin. For instance, he said, chlorine emits invisible fumes that damage the mucous membranes and eye tissue of both consumers and manufacturers, as they “injure the mucosa and could introduce contaminants to the lungs, throat and stomach, and even be absorbed to reach the liver.”
Although the authorities say these substances should not be present in ordinary households, Umm Ayman, a resident of northern Gaza, purchases raw materials from the market to make shampoo at home following primitive methods.
She makes shampoo for personal use and does not sell it. She maintained that she does not suffer any side effects as a result, but admitted to having dry hands.
Regarding the legal proceedings undertaken by the competent government agencies to crack down on these factories, engineer Nafeth Kahlout maintained, “There is no way for them to follow up on this issue because of a lack of technical cadres in Gaza, such as consumer protection inspectors.”
He continued: “Most consumer protection inspectors are specialized in foodstuffs, as symptoms appear quickly in these cases. But the effects of chemical products appear only after a sustained period of use.” Kahlout added, “The department is not aware of how critical this issue is, and there ought to be personnel who are specialized in these matters. Instead, there is indifference and neglect on the part of officials.”
Abdul-Fattah Abu Musa, director general of the General Administration for Industry at the Ministry of Economy in Gaza, affirmed that there was a dedicated team carrying out control, inspection, guidance, and follow-up regarding the quality of products and their compliance with Palestinian specifications.
Abu Musa refused to link between the quality of the products and obtaining a license, saying that a product “may improve [after licensing] by putting controls in place.” Regarding some factories’ practice of packaging products in soda bottles, he said that this was inconsistent with Palestinian specifications.
Article 2 of Cabinet Decision No. 10/1999, which specifies the procedures for issuing licenses to factories and industrial facilities, states that no industrial enterprise may be established, renewed, or expanded in Palestine without a permit from the ministry.
Article 3, paragraph A states that anyone establishing or expanding an industrial enterprise must first apply for a permit from the ministry, while Article 7, paragraph A empowers the minister to shut down any industrial enterprise that was established, or renewed, or expanded without the ministry’s approval.
But Engineer Hani Assar, director of the Department of Industrial Licensing at the Ministry of Economy, has a different opinion. He said: “The department enforces Palestinian specifications as much as possible, requiring factories to abide by the conditions and technical specifications laid down for each sector.” But unlicensed factories, Assar conceded, are not regulated.
However, the department faces problems with the issuance of licenses from the General Administration for Industry. Assar said, “We work without any dedicated industrial law that specifies the duties and rights of factory owners. There is no law, and we operate according to Cabinet Decision No. 10 of the year 1999 on licensing procedures. But a law would be stronger than a decision, which, though clear, requires follow up, and this is difficult without a law in place.”
According to Assar, there are 24 factories producing detergents in Gaza, all of which are licensed by the ministry. However, there are no figures on illegal factories, because there wasn’t enough staff to conduct an industrial survey.
This, he said, requires logistical support, special forms, communication equipment, and transportation, in addition to training around 50 individuals to carry out the survey. According to Assar, only seven employees currently undertake inspection operations.
Engineer Hani Matar, director of the Industrial Development Department at the ministry, said that licenses are renewed annually, and that 140 factories received licenses in 2001, including 10 that manufacture cleaning products.
The government in Gaza and its agencies, as well as the consumer protection department, are responsible for examining products, verifying their compliance with specifications, and shutting down factories found to be in breach. However, this is not being implemented in regards to detergent factories.
Government agencies counter that no citizens have filed a complaint against illegal factories, thereby transferring the blame to the citizenry whom they say do not cooperate with the authorities.
Judge Mohammad al-Daryawi, the deputy chairperson for the Supreme Court and Supreme Justice Council, said that no cases have been brought to the attention of the court. The ministry takes measures against enterprises found to be in violation, he maintained, which can in turn appeal the ministry’s decision. So far, no cases have been brought whether by the ministry or factory owners.
But Abdul-Fattah Abu Musa contends that violations have been found and notices given to violators who are referred to the general prosecution, which in turn refers the cases to the courts. He said: “The number of violations brought to the attention of the public prosecutor in this regard have exceeded a few dozen since the beginning of the year, from all over Gaza.”
Abu Musa pointed out that licensed factories in Gaza make up only about 30 to 40 percent of operating establishments. Regarding unlicensed factories and those that operate haphazardly, he said: “We summon the owners of unlicensed factories and try to reach a settlement, explaining to them the problem of operating without permits from the ministry and pressuring them to rectify their situations.”
At the time of writing, these factories continue to operate in Gaza, with or without regulation.
This investigation was completed with support from Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) and coached by Walid Batrawi.