3:39am , Tuesday 17th May 2022

Qutaina No More

14 May 2007

A mishmash of noises, unpleasant odors, and emissions from three fertilizer manufacturing plants, teams up with waste from the military piazza and neighboring oil refinery, turning Qutaina into an ecological disaster area. Inhabitants of this farming town, live with permanent illnesses, most common of which are respiratory disorders, cancer, and physical distortions. These diseases have turned their lives into endless misery, amidst total negligence and inadequate watch from the Authorities.

The gloomy story of Talal Tarsha family reflects life in this most environment-unsafe spot in Syria, 25 years on. It started with grandma, 64, and passed on to her daughter-in-law, Rim, and her granddaughter, Lara. The latter turned five this winter and her bones are half her age. She exposes her skinny arms because her mom tells her to do so… The 40-year-old mother herself was operated for colon cancer recently.

Grandma Maryam says, her eyes wet, “We are all sick. I suffer from respiratory disorders; my daughter-in-law has cancer and her kid complains from osteoporosis and gland malfunction. My son has his pains to worry about as well.”

In an interview with Economy and Transport magazine, the elderly woman adds, “Our life is a walking disaster, an endless tragedy. My children’s paycheck is wasted on medications. This is outrageous, unfair. Nobody gives a damn. This pollution issue is killing us.”
  Qutaina, a Disaster Area
The story of Tarsha Family is the most common in a town of 8000 inhabitants, mainly living on farming and government occupations, and working in the manufacture of fertilizers.
By 1981, a big cloud of smoke and bad smells engulfed Qutaina, a town overlooking a lake which carries its name, at 12km from Homs. The exhaust fog gathers momentum by the wind current which carries it towards residential neighborhoods. Symptoms of respiratory disorders, coughing, burning, eye irritation and scabies (contagious skin disease) cropped up. According to Cardiac and pulmonary diseases specialist, Dr. Amin Sabbagh, nothing seems to help. Amin is originally from this village and has treated most of the cases since they kicked off.

“As physicians, we began to notice the break of serious diseases, namely cancer, infertility and physical distortions. We noted an association with pollution agents of diverse nature,” said Sabbagh.

A reading of the above results detected environment factors, particularly, pollution-related, behind the health havoc-wreaking the lives of Qutaina residents and workers at the General Company for Fertilizers. The study, which was conducted by the Health Department of Homs Governorate in 1981, also noted a four-fold rise in cancer and infertility cases in Qutaina, against the town of Al Qabu (25km west of Homs). Remarkably, a health report by the private doctor of the General Company for Fertilizers’, drew an association between the respiratory and esophagus disorders and the excessive exposure to pollutants (beyond the internationally-accepted rate of l110mg/m3). The results were substantiated by Damascus-based Scientific Research Center, which observed an increase in dust concentrates on the company’s property. The figures exceeded by 40-fold the global rate, and by six-fold more in Qutaina, ie 4350mg/m3 and 650mg/m3 respectively.

A Comparative Study
This is the only document on hand, which provides an analogy between Qutaina and a sister town unaffected by pollution. No studies were conducted further that measure the level of ecological regression, and related health ramifications, at a later stage.

Head of the Homs Health Department, Dr. Muhamad Abul Kheir, said the 20-year-old study is outdated! A group of doctors, from both Qutaina and Homs, maintained, that besides poor statistics, negligence is plainly an act of the Health Department.

In this respect, Dr. Hussam Tarsh explains: “We lack an adequate statistics and assessment technology, and this brings on inadequate data.” Tarsha is a gynecologist who has treated most of Qutaina cases.

This lonely study included a survey on the main environment-related sicknesses. A random referendum covered 536 cases out of 1075 households in Qutaina; and out of 600 households in Al Qabu, 400 cases were chosen for study; and another 466 out of 1096 workers in the phosphate manufacturing plant, were sampled. See table (1) below.

 A More Systematic Approach
In 2004, the Homs Health Department ran another health survey also targeting Qutania. It was more systematic but did not take a comparative approach. The specimen was selected from Qutaina (namely from private businesses, fertilizers plants, the electricity generation plant and the military piazza; people living in the town and working outside it were also included.

The village was divided into four geographical zones, to be studied by four respective health survey units. Each unit consisted of one physician, a municipality member, and two public health and nursing personnel. The outcome was remarkable, according to Dr. Amin Sabbagh. Pulmonary diseases came first, followed by eye and heart disorders, and tumors (mainly cancer).

A reading of the above results noted an increase in infertility, mental disorders, and physical distortions. Dr. Salem Haddad, who ran the survey, said Qutaina suffered a serious health problem, visible in the increasing numbers of victims, against those recorded in earlier surveys. This is indicative of a real environmental crisis. The Homs Health Department acknowledges the problem. In a letter addressed to the Ministry of Local Administration, it underlined a considerable increase in the rate of infertility over the past five years:13% against a global rate of 10%. It observed an increase in the development of different types of cancer in the past five years: 0.2% against 0.036% in Homs (the global rate being 0.03-0.04%).

But the head of the Health Department, Dr. Muhamad Abul Kheir, said it is difficult to associate tumor cases with an unpleasant environment. He brought to light other defining factors that cause cancer. “Cancer is mostly hereditary, and the probability of occurrence becomes greater, particularly in cases of colon and breast cancer. Thereafter, any other factor is an additional cause for developing cancer, such as toxins or viruses,” he said, adding, “There is no definite proof that pollution causes cancer… people tend to put on an act.” On his view regarding the accuracy of studies and surveys examining the health conditions in Qutaina, he said, “some indicators are precise, others are not… especially in cancer cases, because statistics usually confuse the old and new cancer patients, which is definitely incorrect.”

On their part, Qutaina doctors and residents believe parties concerned tend to play down the gravity of the crisis. Some even claimed the published rate of diseases is not always true; figures are subject to fraud, sometimes, for unknown reasons. Ordinary people try to portray things as normal, although authorities, in their official reports and committee meetings, declare the existence of a serious environmental crisis.

The latest study run by Homs Health Department reported 35 cancer cases in Qutaina; whereas residents and doctors (some took part in the survey) argued the real number was far higher, nearly 150 persons.

Assessing the environmental damage on the economy, the governor of Homs, Muhamad Gazal, admitted, that after all these draining years, everybody had to give up. Businesses causing the pollution are very expensive and, to find a solution, costs them billions of dollars. Therefore, a decision to close down is not as easy as it seems. These companies and factories have economic productivity and, reinstating an industry, requires funds, which inevitably makes the solution part of an economic settlement. Gazal went on to say, “the new proposal, presented by the governorate, is based on a preliminary economic review aimed at helping the businesses, in question, take their decision and provide them with substitute industries.”

But, it seems, until now, the governor had to take the most serious measures alone. He took to court the administration of the fertilizers manufacturing plants and demanded 500,000,000 Syrian Liras ($10 million) be paid against the Homs Governorate as a settlement to health damages from pollution, and as a contribution to enhancing services and sustainable development in the devastated area. The governorate assigned German experts from Play Pace (ecology advocate organization) to prepare a feasibility study on the cost of damages on the environment, incurred by petrochemical industries. Following a visit to the plant in May of 2005, Play Pace announced a 4-5 billion Syria Liras ($80-100 million).

 More than a Party Involved
Sources of pollution in Qutaina vary. There are three major plants manufacturing  calentro ammonium fertilizers,  urea ammonium and phosphate fertilizers). The military piazza (gathering point for military vehicles under construction) is another source; in addition to the electricity generating company, which closed a few years ago, but which caused permanent damage to the neighboring environment.
Added to this, is Homs oil refinery, the biggest in the country, situated not far from Qutaina.

The Department of Environment in Homs submitted a report on the prospects of pollution resulting from the main manufacturers of fertilizers in the province. The report classifies the emissions, under gasses, dust, liquid and solid waste and solid amalgamates. On the chemical synthetics consumed during the production process, the report says they are piled on the factory’s property. Only, vanadium oxide is buried in the desert area at a plain burial ground. These chemicals contain nickel, chrome and vanadium, which are considered heavy metal endangering the environment.
A Complementary Study
Another study carried out by Homs Water Resources Department on December 15th, 2005, confirmed the following: “Al-Assi River and Lake Qutaina, are two basic receptors of waste from fertilizers industry plants. The main drainage points are channeled to Lake Qutaina, like sulfuric acid and phosphoric acid acidic wastes from nitrate acid and phosphoric acid and liquids and discharged during water treatment and from  drainage from phosphor-gypsum basins and natural steam-basins in Al Wa’r area, directly to Al-Assi River. (Al Assi starts or springs from Labwa in Eastern Mount Lebanon, 900m above sea level, extending 366 km inside Syrian territory).

Research carried out by General Committee of Water Resources specialists, detected pollutants containing urea, ammonium, phosphate, sulfur, nitrite and nitrate and heavy metal, like cadmium-iron. Analysis results made available to the “Economy and Transport” magazine, showed a rise in DO=107, indicative of an algae outburst in Lake Qutaina waters. This is mainly due to a flare-up of nutrients, signifying an increase in azoth and phosphorous concentrates.  The investigative report, it will be recalled, took three months to complete.

In a parallel line, another team tested the underground waters in the wells neighboring Qutaina fertilizers’ plants. Nearly 24 wells were covered, and the samples were taken during dry and wet weather. Results noted an unquestionable effect of sulfur, fluoride, nitrate, phosphate and ammonium, in varied levels, on water specifications of the targeted wells. Report findings also noted pollutants reached a 2 km range zone.

On a different note, the team tested heavy metal and toxic metal agents in specific samplings and indicated a rise in chrome, iron and cadmium concentrates. In conclusion, the study established the presence of a rectangular-shaped highly polluted zone, stretching by 300-600m, from the southern wall of the fertilizers plant, close to Qutaina. Based on this finding, the underground waters in that area should not be used. This act prevents a direct impact resulting from the use of the water and breaks off the flow of this water to stop the spread of pollutants.Cause-Effect Equation
Nearly all research testing the air, water, and soil of Qutaina, indicate a presence of toxic gasses and metals, beyond the accepted levels. This is typical of iron, lead, mercury and cadmium, which according to the chief of Homs Health Department, reach a thousand fold. Dr. Abul Kheir revealed a study conducted, in 2004, by the Nuclear Energy and Toxins Laboratories at the Ministry of Health. The study, he explained, showed an outrageous rise in fluoride levels in the region’s flora and fauna. Figures reached 3050mg against the 1/2mg international rate; the proportion in water was 2.7mg against 1/2mg.

On the effect of fluoride on man’s health, the most poisonous visible as black spots on teeth, skeletal distortions, and disorders in bone tissues. Furthermore, high fluoride concentrates cause serious kidney malfunction and disruption of the respiratory system, and may cause cancer, sometimes; fluoride is known to destroy genes and distort cells. This was confirmed in a study drawn by Homs Health Department and presented to the prime minister for economic affairs, Abdallah Al Dardari, during a meeting, on February 26th, 2006, with parties concerned. The study pointed fluoride reaches man not only through the air but also through food and fodder, in the case of animals, if it grew in fluoride polluted soil.

On the other hand, Dr. Munir Bitar, a specialist in heavy metal and professor at the School of Petrochemical Engineering, Baath University, described the toxic attributes of heavy metals. He said mercury, iron, chrome, lead and cadmium, discharged in the process of making fertilizers, are poisonous. They cause enzymes to dysfunction and, hence, lead to poisoning. Cadmium, Bitar maintained, has the greatest effect in causing a degeneration of the bones. It can be transferred through fish, by eating, if these living things built up a high concentration level of these metals. Moreover, cadmium is a cancerous element if breathed in. This point was investigated further by a German researcher, Dr. Sylvia Luvi, who studied cadmium in food and its effect on health. The research was published in 1990, in the magazine of “Chemistry in the lab and in technology”.

Bitar explains heavy metals cause human cells to stop their exchange of nutrients, causing them to dysfunction. As a result, heavy metals move from water to the food cycle in humans, animals, and plants. Bitar spelled out the internationally-established rates of the metals, as set by World Health Organization standards. The restricted volume of mercury in water, for example, should not exceed 0.001mg per liter; lead 0.04mg/l; chrome 0.05mg/l and cadmium 0.005mg/l.

Qutaina Lake, Record Pollution According to unofficial environmental categorization, Qutaina, at present, is one of the biggest ecologically-polluted sites in Syria. Equally, Quwaiq River in Aleppo and waste dumps in Jdeidit ‘Artour in rural Damascus (Reef Damascus), harbor another disease,Tests done on Qutaina Lake waters have shown it had turned into a waste dump for fertilizers industries and neighboring military piazza. The electricity generation plant also contributed to forming that dump in the past years. The study was conducted by Homs Environmental Department and the Water Resources Committee. The Lake is the main receptor of pollutants flowing from Al-Assi River at the point of the Syrian borders with Lebanon. This was maintained in a research by Dr. Bitar, “Sources of Water Pollution in Al-Assi Basin”.

By direct and repeated observation of the Lake, for one whole week, the writer of the report noticed dark spots on its shores, releasing nauseating smells.

Research conducted on the waters of Lake Qutaina, showed an almost continuous flow of unadjusted acidity, through the southern drain, coming mainly from fertilizers plants.  Analysis results clearly indicated a drop in BH level and a rise in sulfates, nitrates, phosphates and fluoride. The waste from the military piazza also contaminates the Lake with various agents, like for example, sodium oils, sodium acids and sodium liquids, as well as with hexahedral nitrite and mercury. The result was outrageous. The indigenous life of the Lake’s flora and fauna was devastated. A great number of fishes were killed and the surviving species developed cancerous tumors and became toxic. This was included in a report prepared by Ukrainian specialists but was not published for undisclosed reasons.

So, when eaten, fish become a cause for developing cancer. Until recently, we should mention, fishing was an essential source of livelihood for many households in Qutaina.

Meanwhile, the School of Veterinary Medicine, Baath University, confirmed Lake Qutaina was polluted, causing a slaughter of fish living in its waters. In this respect, Dr. Ahmad Samman tested samples of the dead fish which bore heavy metal in their inner organs. This, he concluded, is indicative of toxic concentrates, and other non-toxic heavy metal agents, which have detrimental effects on the health of the community. Samman is a specialist in fish diseases and professor at the Division of Health and Preventive Medicine, School of Veterinary Medicine.

On her part, Dr. Sophi Barkeel disclosed fish could be a major carrier of heavy metal to humans, without necessarily showing any such symptoms. Barkeel, former head of Toxins Division at the School of Pharmacy, Damascus University, said fish can tolerate mercury, but exacerbate to a dramatic extent, its effects on health. She maintained higher rates of mercury in the human body can cause neurological disorders and physical distortions; they, sometimes, lead to loss of sight or hearing and unsteady walking.

 And the Suffering Continues
Cancer, infertility, and physical distortions, are but a few of numerous illnesses Qutaina populace complain from. Sometimes one family, or one member of that family, suffers multiple disorders.

Results of the 2002 health survey, showed that almost every member of target households in Qutaina, complained from a certain weakness. According to these results, the average number of family members is 5-6, and the number of reported complaints was 5.91 in every household. Moreover, Dr. Nizar Isaac Tarsha revealed that the scale and severity of diseases were greater in communities closest to the plants, and among Qutaina residents working on their properties (200 out of 1069). Tarsha, it will be recalled, has contributed to the last survey.

Qutaina municipality chief, Bassam Tarsha, maintained health surveys and statistics involving Qutaina, do not truly reflect the size of the problem. He argued, that for social considerations, a great number of inhabitants would not exhibit their physical debilities. A health survey in 2004 reported 23 cases of mental retardation, 19 cases of paralysis, and 6 cases of permanent loss of sight. But it was hard to interview the victim or members of his direct family. Whereas, it was easy to talk to their peers who were not included in the survey!

In this respect, Wadi’ Attiyeh,28,  stated: “I have been married for 3 years now, and my wife could not conceive a normal child yet.” She did not complete her five months of pregnancy, for abnormality in the fetus’ intestines.  She was not fortunate in her second pregnancy as well, as the fetus suffered from inflated kidneys. Doctors recommended abortion at all rates. Attiyeh still hopes the third baby would live and change the life of his mom and dad. This is the fate of many Qutaina residents who look forward to a divine miracle that would shake up their destiny.


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