The Ministry of Health does not apply the law on toxic waste. The environment committee does not operate according to the authorities granted to it by the law.
Expert: fumes from burning waste can cause fatal mutations and mental retardation.
Al Thawra newspaper- Yemen – Mahfouz Sa’id (49 years old) has been suffering severe lung infections for more than 15 years. This has led to blocking a valve in his heart, and an infection in both his kidneys. This is outlined in the medical reports and X-rays that fill a small plastic bag next to him.
“This is the state he is in every day,” says his wife, “and we are tired of trying to find places to treat him.” His children fear that they will lose him one day.
Taher Nu’man (62 years old) finds it difficult to breathe from time to time. “This landfill is a catastrophe,” he cries wearily, “it brought us diseases.”
Like him, Tawfiq Qasimi (38 years old), cried angrily when he saw us: “tell the officials to find us a solution. The smoke has brought us diseases and I am tired of buying medicine for myself and my sons who suffer from asthma.”
Eight out of ten individuals living around the landfill – 15 kilometres west of the city of Ta’az – suffer from respiratory diseases due to smoke and fumes from burning waste in the landfill, which has been operated since the end of the 1980’s.
Respondents to a questionnaire distributed by the author of this report (100 families) also cited genetic mutations, mental problems and kidney failures.
The Ta’az landfill should have ceased operations in 2000, 17 years after it was established. But it has continued to release harmful gases that results from self-combustion of medical and household waste.
This has led to soiling ground water, and an increase in respiratory diseases, as the ‘National Fund for Hygiene and Improvement’ has failed to move the landfill away from residential areas, while the supervision of the Environment Committee has been absent.
What intensifies the problem is the fact that there are no official statistics at the Ministry of Health to illustrate the effects of the landfill on the health of the citizens, in addition to the fact that it allows the transfer of medical waste to the landfills without separating them, according to what the author of this article has concluded through field visits and interviews.
The landfill’s service capacity was around 150.000 individuals in 1983, but now it is servicing over 900.000 individuals in the city of Ta’az, although its lifespan is officially over.
An estimated two million tones of waste are burnt at the landfill, and with 45.000 living in the vicinity, it has become “the worst landfill in Yemen” according to the head of the Waste Transfer Department at the Hygiene Project Abdul, Hakim Nasser.
On a weekly basis, Dr. Muhammed Hamadi treats tens of cases of asthma, throat and chest infections, and allergies in his clinic, only a few meters away from the landfill. Dr. Hamadi says that such diseases, which have become widespread among the residents, are caused by gas emissions from burning waste, that gets buried under a thin layer of dirt in an unhygienic manner due to lack of machinery.
Firdous, a five-year old girl who lives in the village of Shuweihah near the landfill, was born with physical disabilities. Like her, there are many who suffer physical and mental disabilities in this village that has been getting smoke from the landfill for more than 30 years, as it lies in the middle of residential areas. Doctors confirmed that CO and Co2 gasses, emitted through burning waste, have a direct effect on and can harm foetuses, because their pregnant mothers inhale the harmful gases.
Abdo Said (32 years old) complains that three of his children suffer from blockages in their respiratory system. “Look at their pale faces, I have to take them to this clinic every week,” he says, pointing at Hamadi’s clinic.
Dr Fouad Nu’man, the head of the Motherhood and Childhood Center at the old airport district, only five kilometres away from the landfill, says that an average of ten patients come to the hospital every day from the area around the landfill, all suffering from respiratory diseases.
The author of this report visited the only hospital near the landfill to obtain information on the type of diseases that residents suffer from, but it turned out the hospital did not have records or numbers on the diseases and their classification in relation to the residents in the area surrounding the landfill.
But Dr. Ali Naji, the manager of this hospital – which happens to be a private hospital – confirms that, over the last two years, an average of four cases have been arriving each day of people who suffer “respiratory diseases such as asthma, allergies, and infections in the sinuses.”
In turn, the author of this report went through the record of the Ministry of Health for confirmation, but there were no statistics on the diseases spreading among residents of the landfill area.
In addition to the lack of health facilities at the Ta’zian Governorate – which has authority of the area – it only provides inoculation for infants, according to the Security General of the Local Council in the governorate, Ali Abdul Salam Jamili. He says the lack of the information in the ministry’s records is a shortcoming.
Due to the lack of official statistics at the Ministry of Information on the percentage spread of diseases in the landfill area, the author of this report distributed a questionnaire to 100 families in the areas near the landfill to assess the diseases resulting from it.
The results show that 81% of respondents cited infections in the respiratory system. Children from the age of five to 15 were the most affected with respiratory diseases (45%), while the percentage of families where 2-3 members suffered diseases came at 15%, followed by physical deformities at 16%.
Toxic gases are the reason behind the spread of diseases.
The head of the Waste Transfer Department at the Hygiene Project, Abdul Hakim Nasser, does not deny that waste burning takes place around the clock, in contravention with article 17 of the Hygiene Law no. 26 of 1999, obliging authorities to locate landfills away from the cities, agricultural and residential areas, and to make sure that landfills meet the hygienic and environmental requirements set out in this law.
He says: “Gases are spread through the bloodstream to the body, and this affects the heart and brain and kidneys and weakens the body.”
Dr. Anis Attas is a neurologist. He could not confirm definitively that there is a link between burning waste and physical deformities, since he did not know exactly what gases were emitted, and since it is difficult to determine due to lack of equipment that measures the amount of gases in the air in Yemen. However, he confirms that Co2 “can limit the ability of a mother’s body to benefit from oxygen, which increases the possibility of mental and neurological diseases in foetuses.”
In his written study, entitled “Solid Waste and Recycling”, Dr Abdul Wahab Awj – who teaches at the Sciences Faculty at Ta’az University – confirms that there is a close link between environmental pollution and the spread of diseases. Burning hazardous waste in the landfill “releases harmful gases in the air including CO, Co2, SnO and Nitrogen.”
The director general of the Toxic Waste Department in the General Commission for Environmental Protection, Ali Thabhani says that “burning waste, including medical waste, releases Dioxin in the air, one of the most toxic materials.” Thabhani explains that burning medical waste is a prime source of pollution, which could lead to poisoning the neurological system that controls the functions of the brain, the lungs and the kidneys.
Thabhani says he is aware of the level of dangers caused by burning toxic material, but that the commission responsible for protecting the environment is not carrying out its duties. The reason, he explains, stems from the lack of financial allocations to enable it to do so.
Thabhani says that burning waste in open air in the landfill is being done deliberately, and he puts the blame of the ‘National Fund for Hygiene and Improvement’.
“The National Fund for Hygiene is the body that supervises the landfill,” he insists.
Muhammed Bureihi, the general manager of the ‘National Fund for Hygiene and Improvement’, concedes that they are the party that supervises the dump, but he adds that burning process takes place spontaneously because of liquid secretions from waste material.
According to chemical expert, Dr. Riam Absi, Dioxin could lead to different types of cancer, as well we affecting the immune system and abortions and physical deformities and hormone deficiencies among males. Absi adds that “this material (dioxin) does not breakdown but spreads from one living being to another, and could destroy the human body by seeping into the body fat.”
Geological analysis results
This landfill pollutes groundwater as much as it pollutes the air. According to an internal report by the Geological and Mineral Resources Committee in 2005, soil samples taken from seven locations near the landfill have shown high levels of lead (between 0.12-0.16 to a million). The same report has also shown that lead levels in ground and earth water range from 0.17-0.24 to a million. The report says the maximum limit allowed in drinking water should be 0.05 to a million.
Dr. Muhammed Nu’man, a special in kidney and urinary diseases, confirms that exceeding the amount of lead allowed can directly affect the kidneys, sometimes leading to failure due to poisoning. This poison can reach the bones and neurological system.
The author of this report faced difficulty is carrying out a new research of water samples because the geological committee – which is the only body that has equipment to carry out the tests – has refused to help.
This leave the already mentioned study, which has never been published in any paper before, as the only piece of work available in Yemen. The academics at the Sciences Faculty in Ta’az University face the same problem when conducting field studies. Dr. Issam Shar’abi, the head of the environmental studies at Ta’az University, says that liquids secreted from waste seeps into the soil, because the base of the landfill has not been insulated. This affects the soil, earth and groundwater, and at the same time polluting the air with toxic smoke.
Laws on waste disposal are not being applied
What makes the situation even more dangerous is that hazardous medical waste is not being separated from other types of waste before being transferred from hospitals to the landfill.
In 2010, the General Committee for the Protection of Environment presented a paper during a workshop on how to control the hazardous effects of medical waste by the Yemeni Society for Health Awareness in Eden. The paper showed that medical waste comprises 20% of the total waste disposed of in the landfill. This includes human parts and leftovers from surgeries.
Dr Muhammed Ali Makhlafi, the manager of private buildings at the local office for the Ministry of Health in Ta’az, says that “every private construction is responsible for keeping its waste separate, and a smaller incinerator should be built to burn hazardous waste.”
The National Fund for Hygiene and Improvement in Ta’az is unable to transfer the landfill
The fund’s manager, Muhammed Bureihi, does not deny this but he reverts the problem to “the lack of private incinerator in public and private hospitals, with the exception of one incinerator in Al Thawra hospital, the biggest hospital in Ta’az.”
Al Bureihi concedes that the landfill in Ta’az is “no longer valid for use because its supposed lifespan has expired,” but adds that lack of options for alternative locations has forced the concerned parties to continue bringing waste to the current landfill, until a new one is built with the right health and scientific requirements.”
He also insists that the ‘National Fund for Hygiene and Improvement’ received funding in 2005 from the Qatari office of the World Bank in Yemen of $15 million, in order to build a new landfill in Al Bureihi area, which is a few kilometres away from the city.
However, the residents rejected the idea which prevented its implementation, although studies were carried out in this regard.
Bureihi insists that they were careful to build a new landfill in Al Bureihi because it has a sewage system that originally was build for a factory for fertilisers. He says: “the landfill will be transferred to an empty area in Al Makha, which is 70 kilometres away from Ta’az, after a year and a half from completing the construction there.”
From his side, Dr Abdul Wahid Saeed, the manager of the Republican Government Hospital, insists that the incinerator at Al Thawra Hospital was meant to service all health centres and public and private clinics, but it is no longer fit to operate due to poor management and lack of attention by the office of the Ministry of Health in the governorate, as they are the ones who should renovate the incendiary.”
He adds that “all hazardous medical waste is taken to the landfill.”
Dr. Saeed insists that burning hazardous waste in the landfill is not healthy and is violating of the law.” But Dr. Waheed Farisi, the deputy manager of the Office for Medical Services denies that waste is being burned in a way that contravenes with the law, given the resources available to the government. He agrees with Dr. Saeed, however, that it is “unhealthy.”
Hilal Riyashi, the vice-manager of the Environmental Monitoring Department at the Environmental Committee, places the responsibility on the Ministry of Health and the ‘National Fund for Hygiene and Improvement’, adding that the annual budget that his department receives is meager and does not allow it to carry out its duties, although the Environment Law gives his inspectors judicial authorities.
Further he adds that article 76 states that “any illegal disposal or dealing with hazardous waste will be considered a violatoin and a crime against environment.”
Article 19 of Law (no. 39 of 1999) on hygiene obliges “owners of waste such as hospitals and pharmacies and medical labs and industries producing liquid waste (…) to take the necessary steps to separate them from other forms of waste.”
Article 18 of the Health Law (no. 60 of 1999) obliges property owners to meet the necessary health conditions including “providing adequate means to treat waste and hazardous material.”
Jamal Bahar, the general manager of the Environment Office in Ta’az, believes it is necessary to have a dialogue with the local society before the new location is chosen, bearing in mind scientific standards rather than just relying on citizens’ random observations. He says: “the current state of randomness is what scares citizens when we talk about transferring the landfill to their areas.”
The general feeling of disdain that we felt among the citizens throughout our repeated visits to their homes, surrounding the landfill, and the weariness of the possibility that the landfill could remain, persisted until the completion of this report.
They accuse the ‘National Fund for Hygiene and Improvement’ of falling short of their duties, and stalling in the process of removing the landfill. Taher Nu’man, one of the residents, says: “if it wasn’t for the shortcomings of these parties, the landfill would not have stayed here, especially because they know the dangers it poses to us.”
The residents had already demanded the removal of the landfill twenty years ago, and they presented several complaints to the local authorities and the former Presidency.
But they could not reach an agreement with the concerned parties to remove the landfill which is harmful to the environment. The local authority, in the form of the ‘National Fund for Hygiene and Improvement’, deny receiving any such complains but, as Bureihi says, is serious about transferring the landfill within a year and a half.
Given that the problem has spanned over 20 years, residents have little confidence in officials’ promises to end this problem.
Tawfiq Qasimi (38 years old) ends our conversation with a bitter note: “We do not trust the promises we have heard. We urge the President to interfere and lift this harm off us. We heard that they are going to remove the landfill to Al Makha and then they talk about transferring it elsewhere, and this is why we do not trust them.”
This report was compiled with the support of the Arab Network for Investigative Journalists (ARIJ), with the supervision of Khaled Harouji.