Q&A: Choked by Diesel Pollution From Generators, Cancer Rates in Beirut Surge by 30 Percent

This is what can happen when the electrical grid collapses.

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A view of Beirut shows oil tanks throughout the Lebanon capital on Nov. 1, 2023. Credit: Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP via Getty Images
A view of Beirut shows oil tanks throughout the Lebanon capital on Nov. 1, 2023. Credit: Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP via Getty Images

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From our collaborating partner “Living on Earth,” public radio’s environmental news magazine, an interview by executive producer and host Steve Curwood with Najat Saliba, a chemistry professor and member of Lebanon’s parliament. 

Clouds of diesel fumes constantly clog the air in Beirut, where the noise of generators can make it hard to think or sleep. 

Once known as the Paris of the Middle East, Lebanon’s capital is suffering from a chronic financial crisis and the virtual collapse of its electric power grid. Residents must rely on thousands of diesel generators to keep the lights on. And now, Beirut’s air is so badly polluted that researchers at the American University of Beirut are linking it to a startling 30 percent spike in cancer cases.

One of those researchers is Najat Saliba, a chemistry professor, air quality expert for the World Health Organization and a member of Lebanon’s parliament. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

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STEVE CURWOOD: If you could please begin with giving us some insight into the influx in the use of diesel generators in Beirut. Why did that happen?

NAJAT SALIBA: About 10 years ago, National Electricity started rationing hours of electricity for residents in the country. It started with three hours of rationing, and then it escalated into six hours. And then in 2022, the power plants and national grid went really down. People started relying heavily on diesel generators to subsidize the lack of electricity coming from the national grid. It is mismanagement and lack of responsibility and accountability in the way that the national electricity grid and power plants were handled in the country.

CURWOOD: A few years back, there was a major explosion in downtown Beirut at the shipping docks. To what extent did that explosion and fires relate to this loss of electrical capacity?

SALIBA: This is just another manifestation of the lack of responsibility and inefficiency and corruption in the government, whereby they store chemicals, explosives, without really taking care of them and protecting the civilians from their harms. In the same way, this is how the power plants in the country were handled. That’s why they’re leaving people without electricity, and even without really caring about their safety.

CURWOOD: Let’s talk about the pollution there. Diesel generators create a fair amount of particulate pollution. How can the pollution be seen there? What do you notice when you step out of your house?

SALIBA: It’s obvious to the naked eye when you go outside in Beirut, especially directly next to the Beirut hills that people live in. When they go down to their jobs in Beirut in the morning, the route is completely covered by a thick haze of pollution. People are asking why the haze is becoming darker and darker by the season, and in the summer, because there is no wind and no rain. We see this almost every day.

CURWOOD: To what extent is this increase in the use of diesel electric generators being linked to a spike in cancer rates there?

Najat Saliba, a chemistry professor at the American University of Beirut and member of Lebanon’s parliament
Najat Saliba, a chemistry professor at the American University of Beirut and member of Lebanon’s parliament

SALIBA: Since 2010, we have done a lot of air pollution studies whereby we collected particles from the air and did chemical analysis. With the chemical analysis, we did a parallel fingerprint to see what the sources of pollution in the city are. Since 2010, we have realized that over 20 percent of the pollution is mainly coming from diesel generators. Fast forward to 2022. We repeated the same study and were able to compare it to previous years. This is when we found that the amount of pollution coming from diesel generators has increased to 50 percent. With that comes carcinogens in the air that have led to the increase in the cancer rate by 30 percent, and in cancer risk by 50 percent.

CURWOOD: To what do you attribute the factors that are contributing to hazardous air quality there?

SALIBA: We have done what we call a source apportionment, whereby we look at the sources contributing to air pollution. The main sources of air pollution in the city of Beirut are the particles coming from diesel generators and also particles coming from the cars and vehicles that are running on a daily basis. 

We have no industry or very limited industrial activities, and that’s why we consider those two sources as the main sources of pollution. The car fleet that we assessed in 2017 showed that the average age of the cars on the streets is 18 years. And with the economic collapse since 2019, it’s expected that the average age has probably gone higher, meaning that the cars are much older than what we have seen in 2017, and this exacerbates the air pollution.

CURWOOD: Worldwide there are about 8 million excess deaths from particulate pollution But at this point, we don’t have more precise data from Lebanon, or from Beirut itself. How can the lack of definitive data be explained for what seems to be a public health and environmental health crisis there?

SALIBA: The monitoring stations that were once running are now stopped, and that’s why we don’t have continuous data of how much particulate matter we have. The present inefficient government is a complete violation of all human rights. And it’s stripping people of their rights to clean air, clean water.

CURWOOD: Why is that? To what extent is it related to the economic conditions there, the political conditions, the wars nearby? What is driving this?

SALIBA: After Lebanon battled with civil war for 20 to 25 years, the warlords decided to end the war and wear a suit and take charge of the government. Since then—and I’m talking since 1990—even though they came up with a new constitution that emphasizes reform, nothing has been done. Things have been deteriorating, and corruption has been predominating over any reform, or any advancement and development in the country. And of course, this has a toll on the environment, and it has its toll on the well being of people.

CURWOOD: Lebanon has been the recipient of a significant amount of international aid and some loans. What has happened to those funds?

SALIBA: That’s a very, very good question. And I would like the taxpayers all over the world to ask their countries why auditing and accountability has not been enforced on the international aid that has poured into Lebanon. 

We still have very little to show for these grants and loans. I think they have spent $43 billion on the electricity sector; $43 billion [is enough] to not only build a new infrastructure of electricity, they can build a country altogether. So with all this money spent on the electricity sector, we still don’t have electricity. And we pay two bills, one for the government and one for the diesel generators, because we cannot live without them. And we know that the emissions of these diesel generators are going to harm us. But we are left to decide between living in a poisonous environment or living without electricity.

CURWOOD: What are the air quality numbers in Beirut right now?

SALIBA: There is no index, because we don’t have monitoring stations that are operating. So the average particulate matter that we have measured over the past 10 to 15 years has hovered between 20 to 25 micrograms per meter cubed as an annual average. This is at least five times higher than what is recommended by the World Health Organization. So unfortunately, people here are forced to close their windows in winter and summer. Because the sound, the noise of the diesel generators, the smell from the diesel that comes up, and the smoke, all of them can fill up the house.

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CURWOOD: What’s the mood among the public there? What’s the political impact of this?

SALIBA: A lot of people are really upset from the ruling warlords, but at the same time, these rulers have created a deep state whereby a lot of people’s lives depend on them. And that’s why it’s very difficult to say that the people really have the freedom to choose between them and other candidates. Clientelism and dependency have been entrenched in people’s lives, and that’s why those rulers have become like dictators.

CURWOOD: What kind of mitigation plans are in place to try to turn this situation around?

SALIBA: What we’re trying to do is now put on a lot of pressure through the media, through press releases on the executive branch of the government to actually implement some regulations on these diesel generators to reduce emission while also demanding electricity coming from the national electricity company. We are in the process of communicating this with the judiciary in order for them to be able to enforce the decrees that have been issued by the Ministry of Environment in terms of regulating how diesel generators operate in order for the emissions to be regulated and reduced.

Editor’s note: Living on Earth’s direct requests for comments from the Lebanese government so far have gone unanswered. Nasser Yassin, the minister of environment in Lebanon’s caretaker government, was recently quoted in the Lebanese publication, The National. He said, “The presence of this large number of generators and their use most of the time is an anomaly and should be reduced through better and cleaner sources of electricity.” He did not offer a timetable for a solution.  

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