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Posts Tagged ‘Najat Saliba

The sinister side of Lebanon’s electricity crisis

Lebanon’s frequent power outages are a major and costly inconvenience to all who experience them.

Any Lebanese who is trapped in an elevator, showering in the dark or driving on a pothole-ridden road without streetlights has at some point shaken their fist at the sky and cursed the country’s electricity deficit.

I posted a similar article, and a reminder is always useful

Michelle Ghossoub posted this April 11, 2013

What most don’t know is that the diesel generators used to provide the missing electricity are not only a financial burden – they may also have the potentially deadly side effect of releasing cancer-causing pollutants into the air.

A recent study conducted by Professors Alan Shihabeh and Najat Saliba of the American University of Beirut has compared the air quality in Beirut’s Hamra district while diesel generators are turned on and off.

Their results show that diesel generators, used as a quick fix to Lebanon’s electricity problem, are releasing highly toxic carcinogenic particles into the air at alarmingly high rates, often directly into people’s homes.

Image courtesy of

On average, residents in Beirut’s Hamra neighborhood are being exposed to at least 40 times more of these cancer-causing pollutants when diesel-powered generators are switched on, than when electricity is provided normally through Lebanon’s government-owned company.

“Once these dangerous particles enter the body’s tissues, they have potentially devastating effects,” explains Professor Saliba of the Department of Chemistry, “they are associated with many illnesses, not only asthmatic problems but also cardiovascular problems, blood pressure, and of course, cancer.”

The culprits are tiny particles by the name of Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs). PAHs are pollutants that occur in nature following the incomplete combustion of organic matter. Because the average generator used in a Lebanese home is highly inefficient, they release these toxic particles into the air, unbeknownst to those depending on them.

The tiny size of these carcinogens is part of what makes them so dangerous. These particles are small enough to be easily inhaled into the human respiratory system, where they stick inside the lungs. Eventually, they penetrate the alveoli, tiny sacs inside lungs allowing for the exchange between gas and blood.

Once PAHs penetrate the veins and travel through the body via the bloodstream, their effects can be devastating. It is currently estimated that 93% of Beirut inhabitants are exposed to PAHs on a daily basis.

“We need to raise awareness of this in all ways possible,” concluded Professor Saliba, “people do not realize that if you inhale these fumes, you may as well be inhaling poison.”

Though these carcinogens are highly toxic and it is not recommended that humans inhale them, most people around the world are exposed to them daily. PAHs are also released by the partial combustion of gasoline, coal, and wood. Anything from forest fires to traffic can emit such particles into the air. Both cigarette and smoke from water pipes also release PAHs, part of the reason why smokers are prone to developing lung cancer.

What is dangerous in the Lebanese case, explains Professor Saliba, is that the PAHs released by diesel emit a much higher level of carcinogen than any other form of fuel.

“Essentially, generators are making smokers out of all of us.” she explains, “Often, they are not highly maintained, and the diesel itself is not the highest standard we should get. And most importantly, this exhaust is being released directly onto balconies and into homes.”

Though these results are alarming, the full extent of the problem in Lebanon remains unknown. The tests were all carried out in Beirut’s Hamra district, an area that experiences power outages for around 3 hours daily. However, populations hardest hit by electricity shortages are often those living in rural areas, far from the capital.

“Other parts of the country may experience 6 hours without electricity or more, sometimes even the whole day. So considering that with 3 hours of generator use you are getting an increase of 40% of carcinogens, you can imagine the severity of the problem in other places,” elaborated Saliba.

The problem is aggravated during the summer months, when there is no breeze to clear the air. This allows the particles to linger in homes and be inhaled hours after they are initially released.

Though this is the first study of diesel generators and their effect on Beirut air quality, it is estimated that this problem has existed in Lebanon for the past 10 to 15 years.

No research has yet been conducted to look into the potentially devastating effects this may have had on the population’s health.

Professors Shihabeh and Saliba strongly urge others in the medical field to pick up on this end of the research, and encourage citizens to demand an immediate increase in electricity production from the government.

Or at least, to look to the horizon for the next Turkish ship (Fatimagul) that generate power in the sea to come save us all.

Diesel generator of electricity? Compounding health risk

Lebanon is accustomed to a chronic energy problem. Public power outage is a daily occurrence across the entire tiny country. In urban centers, the hum of diesel generators is the background noise for residents who rely on them to sustain a precarious continuity in electricity.

In the 20’s, Lebanon exported electricity to Syria and Jordan. In the 21st century, Lebanon relies on private providers firing up Diesel generators to supply the need in electricity, at high added cost and high health risk.

We joke in Lebanon that this private system is meant as a war strategy so that Israel will be impotent to reduce Lebanon in total darkness, since the public power is on for about 4 hours a day.

Andrew Bossone published in Nature Middle East

Diesel generators are widespread across the country to cover periods of electricity downtime.© Andrew Bossone

“A study by researchers at the American University of Beirut (AUB) has found that the concentration of potent atmospheric pollutants spiked in urban areas of Lebanon at peak times for diesel generator use.

The pollutants, a class of gases called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) that result from burning fossil fuels, are known carcinogens and teratogens. Beirut’s air pollution is nearly twice the safe limit set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency of 12 micrograms per cubic metre.

The study monitored 184 buildings and 109 generators in the Hamra area of Beirut minute by minute for about two weeks at each site over the course of a year.

The team used PAH monitors to record air quality and analyzed the data by constructing a 3D model simulating air flow and pollutant distribution. It determined that about 40% of the PAH in the atmosphere in Hamra came from generators.

Alan Shihadeh, lead author of the study, said: “I expect that in other areas with dense urban morphologies, we will see even higher PAH levels in the air resulting from diesel generators.” He warned that the country’s continued reliance on diesel generators would lead to higher rates of cancer and respiratory and heart diseases.

Expensive alternative

“The last thing we need is to place diesel generators outside our bedrooms and offices.”

Lebanon’s decrepit power generation, transmission and distribution system has failed to keep pace with a huge increase in electricity consumption over the last two decades. The country’s power insecurity is also a legacy of the 15-year civil war that decimated its infrastructure. The problem was exacerbated by Israeli attacks in 2006 that targeted power stations.

The state electricity company, Electricite du Liban, can only produce about half the power required. In Beirut, electricity is suspended on a daily schedule of three hours between 6am-6pm. Outside the capital the cuts may be for the entire 12 hours. Residents currently have no option but to fill the gap with generators.

Habib Battah, a journalist and the author of the blog says a better solution would be the production of public power, rather than individuals finding ad-hoc solutions. Battah adds that the high prices charged for privately generated electricity is creating social divides where the poor cannot afford it.

A study published in 2011 by AUB chemist Najat Saliba, who co-authored the study, found that 93% of Beirut’s inhabitants were exposed to dangerous air pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide, at levels 50% higher than the limits recommended as safe by the World Health Organization (WHO).

The 2011 study – which also found airborne particulate matter was double that recommended by WHO – measured the impact of vehicle emissions. This study is the first to examine how diesel generators contribute to pollution.

“Beirut already suffers from high levels of air pollution,” says Shihadeh. “The last thing we need is to place diesel generators outside our bedrooms and offices.”




March 2023

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