By Mohammed Abu Shahmeh and Ibrahim Rami
Gaza City, The Gaza Strip, date (Palestine online) – Every morning, Raed Abu Musameh, 40, from Al Shati’ Al Gharbi refugee camp in Gaza, passes by the bakery to buy his family’s daily requirements of bread, a staple of the Gazan meal!
Like many Gazans, he does not know that the bread he is buying from one of the best bakeries in the camp is filled with harmful ingredients: Nitrates from the use of saline “tap” water, as shown by laboratory tests conducted by these two investigative reporters. Their finding was verified by officials at the Ministry of National Economy, the authority responsible for giving bakeries operating permits as well as monitoring them. The ministry, however, does attribute the negligence in monitoring to a lack in staff and the absence of regulating laws for this particular sector. Incidentally, and as both investigators were interviewing d the deputy assistant of the minister Emad Al Baz, the Ministry of National Economy quickly sent out “directives” to all bakeries warning them against the use of “tap water” when baking bread! It did not, however, refer to any particular laws or site punitive measures. And it took the action only when both reporters informed them of the breaches in this sector.
Based on the results gained from the testing of samples taken from 25 different bakeries in five municipalities in the Gaza Strip, and carried out at the laboratories of Al Azhar University, our investigation exposed that the majority of Gaza’s 120 bakeries, with the exception of one, used undrinkable “tap” water supplied through the water grid.
The Ministry of National Economy is aware that the majority of the bakeries in Gaza do not use filtered water. But they have taken no action other than the recent “directive” that was sent out.
During a field trip that followed, bakery owners told the two reporters that the Consumer Protection Department had indeed sent out orders to use filtered water in their baking, but none of the bakeries had taken that to heed because they knew that the ministry did not enforce any punitive measures.
Such practices contravene with Palestinian specification for bread, which insist on the use of potable water, and stipulate that nitrate levels should not exceeding 50 mg per litre.
Chemical Reactions caused by heat in the oven
All experts we met agreed that the danger of nitrates increases as soon as they are exposed to heat inside the ovens forming a nitrite compound, which in turn reacts with the amino acids in the human body resulting in the carcinogenic compound nitrosamine, one of the key causes of stomach cancer.
According to the Water Authority director Munther Shablaq, inhabitants of the Gaza Strip do not use “tap” water for drinking and in food preparation because it isn’t suitable for such purposes. He confirms that 96% of the water sources in the area are polluted with high levels of nitrates and chlorine; more than the permitted levels set by the World Health Organization (WHO) which stipulates that nitrate levels should not exceed 50mg/litre. The increase in these levels is caused by the transmission of nitrates in polluted water to bread when a chemical reaction takes place inside ovens, endangering the consumers’ lives as well as the environment.
“Taps” that do not quench thirst
As an alternative to the polluted “tap” water, Gazans rely on filtered water from desalinization plants that are located all over the Strip and use this for drinking and in food, at a cost of $4 per 500 litres. Bakers, however, are not letting up on the use of the polluted water in their bread bringing the poison to Gazan tables and therefore hindering any attempts at avoiding pollutants!
Both reporters took two samples of bread, one from a well-known bakery in Al Shati’ refugee camp, the third largest of the eight refugee camps (with 82,000 registered refugees), and the other from the city of Khan Younis, where 68,000 refugees live.
The bread samples were sent to the Al Azhar University Lab in Gaza City. Four days later the results of the chemical analysis came as follows: Nitrates at a level of 62.45mg/l were present in the first sample and 54mg/l in the second, both contravening with the Palestinian specifications for bread which insist that “bread should be free of any chemical compounds.”
We attempted to obtain water samples from the bakeries, but failed to do so as the only authority permitted to secure such samples is the consumer protection team from the Ministry of National Economy. That team did however share with us the results of a chemical analysis test carried out at the start of the current year, which indicated the presence of very high levels of nitrates reaching almost 180mg/l in some of the samples drawn; that is almost four times the permissible amount. This information was provided by Ziad Abu Shaqra, a deputy at the Ministry of National Economy and the director of the Consumer Protection Department. The ministry, however, did not enforce any punitive measures on that bakery!
In violation of the Specifications
Palestinian specifications for bread stipulate “the use of potable water adherent to Palestinian specifications” which in turn require that nitrate levels not exceed 50mg/l. The American Environment Protection Agency stipulates that levels of nitrates in water should not be more than 10mg/l while the European Union levels are 15mg/l.
Unaware of the risks
Both reporters confronted the bakery owners with the lab results. They also visited five bakeries in various municipalities to gather data. Their discussions showed that all owners and workers were unaware of the dangers of using the toxic “tap” water in baking. One of the owners explained himself by saying that “everyone uses it and it is harmless” and if they had to resort to using filtered water “it would cost a lot of money.”
Others resorted to the excuse that the water was “harmless” with only “an increased level of saline in it,” as one of the bakery owners said. He explained that he “uses less salt in the bread because the water is salty.” Another added: “all these salts or any other substances in the water disappear and evaporate completely once the dough is placed in the oven.”
The lab results, however, prove that the nitrates not only remained but reacted to form other compounds after being placed in the oven. This was seconded by experts.
A ray of light
The team headed to the only bakery in Gaza that uses filtered water. There we discovered that the shop had “its own water filter” that provides “water for the bread.”
The owner says that “the price of the bread did not change when he used filtered water and he sells it at the same price as other bakeries in Gaza Strip.” He said he uses filtered water as “water supplied by the municipality is not fit for human consumption.”
Our investigative team presented their findings to the director of the environmental research and studies unit at “Ma’an Development Centre, Dr. George Karzam, who confirmed that level of nitrates found in the analysis were “very dangerous to human lives.”
He explains that the dangers lie in the “nitrate’s ability to turn into nitrite as soon as it is subjected to heat and once it is consumed by humans it reacts with elements in the body and turns into nitrosamines, which are highly cancerous compounds”.
Dr. Karzam also points out that “nitrates are directly connected to nitrites and they both remain in the bread, which is the crux of the issue”. This means that if nitrate levels are high in the water or bread, the levels of nitrites will also be high in the bread, and this makes it dangerous to human lives.
Dr. Karzam confirms that once nitrate levels are found to be elevated in bread then “nitrite levels will be double”. If for example the level of nitrate is calculated at 50mg/kg for the one loaf, nitrites would be twice that number.” However, he adds that the “inability to calculate the correct levels of nitrites in food as a result of the use of polluted water is something of concern in Palestine; we still do not have the right mechanisms to measure nitrites in the country.”
The evolvement of nitrates into nitrites “does not only harm adults” as Dr. Karzam explains. “It is also the cause of what is known as Blue Baby Syndrome, which can lead to death.” According to the director of Health Information at the Ministry of Health Dr. Atef Masad, statistics for such cases are unavailable.
Organic Chemistry expert and lecturer at Al Azhar University Dr. Hasan Tamous reiterates what Dr. Karzam has said regarding “the use of “tap” water in the Gaza strip bakeries and dangers emanating from the nitrates in the water which turn into nitrites when baking, thereby becoming dangerous to human health.”
Tamous explains that all modern scientific studies have proven that any level of nitrates higher than 10mg/litre has an adverse affect on new born babies leading to Blue Baby Syndrome because of the nitrates found in the mother’s milk.
If indeed it is verified that bakeries are using regular “tap” water in the baking process, Tamous says that means “the problem is a large one because the wells have high levels of nitrate and when there is accumulation health concerns emerge that could lead to cancers.”
Armed with the information we had gathered from both Tamous and the director of the Ma’an Environmental Development Centre we went to the head of the education unit at the National Food Institute in Egypt, Wagdi Nazih. The latter also confirmed that nitrates were chemical compounds that caused health issues in humans. He explained that the overuse of compounds with high levels of nitrates was the main reason for the spread of cancerous cells, which has become an epidemic in the area amongst all age groups.
According to Nazih, the World Health Organization “calls for the decrease of the use of such substances as much as possible and to make the public aware of this.”
Numbers and Statistics
Cancer is widespread in the Gaza Strip, according to Dr. Atef Masad, director of the Health Information Centre at the Ministry of Health. “These numbers are increasing dramatically every year”. He points out that “it has now become the second highest cause of death in the area after heart disease.”
In 2014, 1404 new cancer cases were registered, according to Dr. Masad — 117 cases a month, twice the number that was registered in 2010. He points out that “stomach and intestinal” cancer is the second highest form of cancer in Gaza with a rate of 14.5%, after breast cancer in women which calculates at 34.5%.
The failure of monitoring
Abdul Nasser Al Ajrami, president of the Baker’s Association in Gaza confirms that “not a single bakery has been shut down in the city for any reason such as issues regarding honesty or cleanliness.”
According to him, the Ministry of National Economy is the authority responsible for “the overseeing of bakeries and they also set the prices for bread as well measurements”
Work inside bakeries, “is regulated by the Consumer Protection Agency which checks on the quality and weight of the bread.”
Spokesman for the Ministry , Emad Al Baz, reiterates that most bakeries rely on the use of “tap” water for baking needs.
The Deputy Minister explains that a team from the Consumer Protection Agency had tested “water samples and found that nitrate levels in the water were very high which constituted a danger to human health.”
The head of the agency at the Ministry of Health, Dr. Ziad Abu Shaqra, says that the tests that were carried out proved that nitrate levels reached 180 mg/kg.
He says that bakeries “do not abide by the legal requirements that stipulate the use of water meeting specifications and explains that his ministry suffers “from a lack of inspectors at the Consumer Protection Agency with only 50 distributed over the five municipalities in Gaza”. They are responsible for the monitoring of markets, prices and following up on complaints submitted by consumers, tradesmen and factories.
He doesn’t think that the number of employees “is sufficient to cover the area”.
Before Hamas took over the strip and split from the Fatah-led PNA running the West Bank, the number of inspectors was 120.
However, he says that the ministry “plans to instil new measures to put an end to the use of undrinkable water in baking.” The consumer protection agency will “require bakeries to use filtered water and any violations will be dealt with harshly to the extent of closure.”
In the meantime and until these new measures are implemented, bakeries are still using the toxic “tap” water even though most of them now know the dangers that emanate from it.
This investigation was carried out with support from Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) and coached by Mayada Al Daoud. www.arij.net