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Lebanon’s Toxic Chemical Environment,
The Deadly Legacy of the July 2006 War

By Dr Paula Baillie-Hamilton

News Editorial,
Friends of Lebanon


Although I live in Scotland, my family was personally touched by the aftermath of the July bombings since some family friends were unwittingly caught up in the bombing, this when they returned home for a family wedding in Tyre, Lebanon last July. Whilst they appeared to suffer temporary symptoms, to be honest they said they were just so happy at the time to have survived at all, they had no time to think of anything else. So they could have never imagined after escaping from this terrible ordeal, that just by breathing in the heavily polluted air caused as a direct result of the bombing and would have inhaled some of the most toxic and disease triggering chemicals known to mankind. Fortunately now they understand the situation, they are now dealing with it effectively, however if this problem had remained unrecognised and ignored, these chemicals would have largely remained in their bodies, continually poisoning them for decades to come.

Unfortunately, there were many people who may have paid a far more immediate and heavy price for the extreme levels of environmental chemical pollution caused by the bombing. One of them may have been a young Lebanese couple living in Tyre, Lebanon who despite the wife having a totally healthy 7 month old pregnancy at the start of the July bombings, a few weeks later gave birth to a perfectly formed but dead child. At the time no reasons were given for this personal tragedy, but if you look at the wider picture it is possible to find possible answers which could explain this tragedy.

While nothing has been proved, looking at the context of their situation there is an answer which appears painfully simple and highly plausible. It appears to relate directly to the huge amount of dioxins that the mother would have been exposed to unavoidably by breathing in the clouds of highly chemically toxic gas billowing out for more than two months after the repeated bombing of the Burj el Chemali plastics factory near the small town of Tyre. A report by Greenpeace (1) which outlines the problems associated with the bombing of the Lebanese plastics factories, mentioned a witness who reported to them that: "A hugh black cloud covered the village, our eyes stung, and we felt weak. My son was bed ridden for 3 days, throwing up, not eating or drinking. We didn't know why. It turned out to be from the smoke."

As the factory near Tyre made PVC plastics for medical equipment, it would have needed a wide range of toxic chemicals to do this, such as chlorine, fire retardants, plasticisers and heavy metals. So when the building was bombed, a mixture of all these chemicals would have been spewed out in the thick toxic black smoke bellowing out forming widespread heavy clouds. Whilst any of these could have compromised the health of her unborn child, possibly of the most relevant chemical in this case would have been a group of chemicals known commonly as dioxins.

Dioxins are synthetic chemicals created as a contaminant in the formation of other synthetic chemicals, however they are also formed in massive quantities by the burning of a common type of plastic which contains chlorine, commonly known as PVC (polyvinyl chloride). Many scientists have described dioxins as the most toxic chemicals known to mankind, as they interfere even in minute levels with most of the important and fundamental basic human bodily functions. In addition because of their extreme stability, they simply do not breakdown readily and because of their unusual artificial structure our natural waste disposal systems can't 'see' them to get rid of them. Putting this together with the fact that they are highly fat soluble, these chemicals end up accumulating in the body and are then passed down from generation to generation. Not surprisingly, this combination all adds up to triggering a vast array of both short and long term health problems. (2)

Starting with the myriad of short term health problems caused by dioxins, the most well known symptoms are as follows: flu like illnesses, weakness, gut infection like symptoms, chloracne (skin diseases, acne, boils, skin discolouration), blood disorders such as porphyria, liver damage, and peripheral and central nerve damage. More relevantly to the young Lebanese couple in question, dioxins have also been linked to increased fetal loss and reduced birth weight in animal studies. (3)

A mechanism used to explain this damage by dioxins to unborn babies appears to be due to the ability of dioxins to cause blood vessels to constrict. As constricted blood vessels hold less blood, this reduces the blood flow in the tissues down stream. Since babies depend on a good blood supply in the womb for providing all their food, oxygen and metabolic needs, any restriction on their blood supply would easily restrict the growth of an unborn child or at higher levels threaten its life. This has been shown to be more than just theory since this relationship between dioxins and low birth weight and death of unborn babies was indeed documented following a factory explosion near Seveso, Italy in 1976. In this case a massive amount of dioxins were released into the environment, following which 11% of established pregnancies ended as spontaneous abortions. It also resulted in lower birth weights in children for eight years following this event and babies tended to be born earlier than they should normally have. (4)

Because the Lebanese mother would not have been able to avoid weeks of exposure to this dioxin containing toxic smoke, this could explain how this young couple's child died with no apparent cause of death recognised. It also would explain why chemical poisoning would not been looked for at the time, as simple survival would have been the main thought in all most people on finding themselves in the middle of a battle zone.

Unfortunately this problem does not end there, since continual exposure to dioxins in the diet, air and water will continue to add to the chemical 'body burden' particularly of people living around the most polluted sites over the years. This increases the chance of developing many of the known long-term illnesses linked to these chemicals which include: atherosclerosis, hypertension, diabetes, cancer, vascular eye damage, enlarged prostate gland (in men) testicular cancer, genital tract birth defects in male children, and signs of brain and nerve damage, including depression. As these diseases can develop several decades after massive exposure it is often difficult to diagnose these chemical factors as being responsible because such chronic effects are nonspecific, multifactorial, and happen years after the initial exposure. Yet this opinion is supported by the dose-dependent effect of dioxins found in exposed workers and by experimental animal studies.

The scary thing was that the bombing of this plastics factory was only a small part of the massive destruction which took place. To get a better feel for the amount of chemicals released, you need to take into account many other issues such as the widespread destruction of the oil fuel stores, the petrol stations, the electrical power stations (a massive 37 tonnes of carcinogenic PCBs -chemicals with similar effects to dioxins were released from the electricity transformer near Sidon), and the thousands of other buildings in Lebanon. Artificial and highly toxic synthetic chemicals are found in high levels in all of these places and so their uncontrolled extensive release in the environment as a direct result of the bombing will have created an environmental disaster for mankind and wildlife alike. (5)

And whilst it may have superficially seemed to have affected just Lebanon, like global warming, chemical pollution is a global problem. This is because these events will also have resulted in huge quantities of dioxins, furans and PCB’s being launched into the atmosphere. Once there, they can travel for thousands and thousands of miles and can settle on land or water at any point on this journey. So the entire region and the whole planet will have been affected to some degree.

OK, so what can be done about this problem? Well the first and most important thing is to recognise it is an issue. Once you do this you will be half way there, as you will then be motivated to find a way forwards and have the patience to implement a remedy as it will not happen overnight. Indeed as an academic, medic, author but also as a mother with a young family, I have been intensively researching this particular issue for over 10 years now, as chemical pollution is unfortunately a global problem affecting every one to different degrees. And as the production of synthetic chemicals doubles approximately every ten years, the health damage caused by chemicals will continue to climb.

However there is a way forwards. This is due to the fact that, despite the difference in methods of exposure, the chemicals used and created by the war are the same or very similar to those people pay for in the West when they buy products such as foods treated with synthetic pesticides, drinks contaminated with environmental pollutants, cosmetics filled with plastics pesticides and artificial fragrances, medicines made from synthetic chemicals, the latest plastic household gadget and indeed most goods on sale. It also doesn't matter in what form chemicals enter the body, since dioxins entering the body from a polluted fire from a bombed factory near Tyre or dioxins entering the body from a polluted fish you have just eaten at an expensive restaurant in London will poison you just the same. This is why whether you live in London, Riyadh, Cairo, Abu Dhabi, Paris or Beirut, the treatment involves the same methods, ie cutting down on future and current exposure to toxic chemicals, and giving the body what it needs to maximise our ability to process and rid ourselves of these chemicals.

Since levels of chemicals have grown so high in the population in the west from their ever continuing growth in exposure to chemicals, I am regularly dealing with people who have had their health damaged by chemicals, the same and similar to those used and released by the aftermath of Lebanon's July War. I have also found that people who have had their health damaged by the same chemicals found in the aftermath of Lebanon’s July War have been able to improve their health significantly and often dramatically, by following the simple but comprehensive advice mentioned in my latest book, Toxic Overload (Penguin Putnam USA 2005)

So whilst people living in Lebanon who have lived through this July war have been hit badly from a massive dose of chemicals, their awareness of the health problems posed by toxic chemicals is of vital importance, not only to enable them to adapt to living in a now permanently polluted country, but also to recognise and avoid the increasing globally available tide of chemically polluted products now available in ever increasing volumes. Indeed Lebanon should not be particularly singled out in being polluted since many other countries are far more noticeably affected. These include countries such as Hong Kong where regular levels of air pollution from the high volumes of traffic has reportedly even caused one in ten tourists to suffer pollution linked health problems whilst visiting the country. (6)

Fortunately, due to their lower every day exposure to chemicals in their everyday products and to their better diet, which is more naturally produced, the people of Lebanon do have a considerable advantage to most people in the West. Whilst this will have protected the Lebanese people to some extent, once the level of pollution rises to a certain degree, the body needs a much higher level of nutrients than can be gained from even the best nutritious foods, in order to process and rid itself of the chemicals which it can shift by itself. To give the body the higher level of nutrients it now needs to function with this extra detoxification burden from the ever increasing level of chemicals, it is possible to take certain supplements to support and strengthen the body's detoxification systems as well as to ensure the normal nutrient demands are met.

Care also needs to be taken in the choice of food eaten in Lebanon, such as avoiding animal meats which have been farmed a few miles away from some of the more polluted sites. As animals tend to accumulate chemicals from plants, as they are higher up the food chain, it is a sensible precaution to eat more vegetables. Fish are also a potential problem as (despite being an excellent source of certain essential omega 3 oils) they accumulate many of the contaminants present in polluted oceans and rivers. Again once this is known, it is possible to adapt behaviour so that foods which can absorb these toxins can be consumed at the same time as a potentially polluted meat or fish meal, making these essential foods a great deal safer.

So while there is no doubt about the many health problems that current and future generations will be facing due to the chemical fallout following the July bombing, there are many things which can be done which not only protect people travelling to the Lebanon on holiday, but also those living in the most polluted areas in Lebanon and the adjacent countries. It just takes some knowledge and a willingness to make a few easy lifestyle changes. Awareness and understanding are the first steps.



“Lebanon’s Toxic Chemical Environment, The Deadly Legacy of the July 2006 War.”
Copyright © Dr Paula Baillie-Hamilton 2007


The Author Dr Paula Baillie-Hamilton MD PhD
--Visiting Fellow in Occupational and Environmental Health, Stirling University, Scotland, UK.
--Author of 'Toxic Overload' published by Penguin Putnam (NY 2005) An Arabic translation of this book is to be published Spring 2008 by dar el-farasha (http://www.darelfarasha.com/)
This book deals with identifying the highest sources of toxic chemicals in our food, homes and environment and how to reduce our exposure to the most polluted sources. It also details how all the major 'modern' illnesses people are affected by (such as asthma, allergies, M.E. cancer, heart disease, hormonal problems, childhood developmental problems like ADHD autism and dyslexis, brain and nerve diseases, infertility and many other health problems) are triggered or exacerbated by which chemicals. It also outlines the natural methods available in order to detoxify effectively and safely.
www.slimmingsystems.com

References:

1. http://www.oilspilllebanon.org/articles/Witnessing War.pdf.

2. Adverse health effects in humans exposed to 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD). Authors: Pelclova D, Urban P, Preiss J, Lukas E, Fenclova Z, Navratil T, Dubska Z, Senholdova Z. Rev Environ Health. 2006 Apr-Jun; 21(2): 119-38.
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/sites/entrez?Db=pubmed&Cmd=ShowDetailView&TermToSearch=16898675&ordinalpos=2&itool=EntrezSystem2.PEntrez.Pubmed.Pubmed_ResultsPanel.Pubmed_RVDocSum

3. Endocrine biomarkers of early fetal loss in cynomolgus macaques (Macaca fascicularis) following exposure to dioxin. Guo Y, Hendrickx AG, Overstreet JW, Dieter J, Stewart D, Tarantal AF, Laughlin L, Lasley BL. Biol Reprod.1999 Mar;60(3):707-13.
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/sites/entrez?Db=pubmed&Cmd=ShowDetailView&TermToSearch=10026120&ordinalpos=12&itool=EntrezSystem2.PEntrez.Pubmed.Pubmed_ResultsPanel.Pubmed_RVDocSum

4. Maternal serum dioxin levels and birth outcomes in women of Seveso, Italy. Eskenazi B, Mocarelli P, Warner M, Chee WY, Gerthoux PM, Samuels S, Needham LL, Patterson DG Jr. Environ Health Perspect. 2003 Jun; 111(7):947-53.
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/sites/entrez?Db=pubmed&Cmd=ShowDetailView&TermToSearch=12782497&ordinalpos=4&itool=EntrezSystem2.PEntrez.Pubmed.Pubmed_ResultsPanel.Pubmed_RVDocSum

5. Amnesty International’s report “Israel/Lebanon Deliberate destruction or "collateral damage"? Israeli attacks on civilian infrastructure” http://web.amnesty.org/library/Index/ENGMDE180072006

6. http://www.terradaily.com/reports/Hong_Kong_Pollution_Leaves_Tourists_Choking.html

 




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