Lebanon’s frequent power outages are a major and costly inconvenience to all who experience them. Any Lebanese who has found themself 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.
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.
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 to come save us all.