A health crisis in the making: How Lebanon's biggest landfill is making everyone sick
As the sun rises over Bourj Hammound’s landfill, the biggest waste dumping site in the country, workers start walking towards the wave breaker to wash themselves in the sea.
They all look exhausted and covered in a thick layer of dirt. The fumes from the colossal heap of trash are insufferable to those unfamiliar.
"I can’t smell anything, I got used to it," says one young Syrian man as he takes off his t-shirt to jump into the water. By 10 in the morning, he had already been collecting garbage for over six hours. "I prefer working here than begging on the streets."
"There is a lot of fighting for the trash. There is no future in this job. It is a disgusting job, I want to leave it. My dream is to move to Germany to continue with my education"
Bourj Hammoud's landfill emerged as a response to the 2015 waste crisis, which was characterised by an insufficient number of landfills in Lebanon to manage the escalating litter issue.
This resulted in Beirut's streets becoming overwhelmed with towering piles of garbage. Consequently, the Lebanese government reclaimed over 280,000 square metres, equivalent to more than 39 football fields, along the waterfront of Beirut to establish the country's largest and newest waste disposal site.
Described by the World Bank as one of the most severe economic collapses in the past 150 years, Lebanon's current economic crisis has caused the Lebanese Pound to devalue by over 98% against the US dollar.
Simultaneously, the country is grappling with inflation rates exceeding 250%. This dire economic situation has compelled marginalised communities, particularly those from Syria, to turn to occupations such as 'trash collectors' for their livelihoods.
Research shows that as much as 88% to 90% of the generated waste in Lebanon can be recycled. Many have seen this and the landfill in Bourj Hammoud as an opportunity to put bread on the table.
Eyad, an 18-year-old — who stopped going to school when he was nine — fled the war in Syria when he was 14 and has been working collecting waste for recycling ever since he arrived in Lebanon.
He works for over 12 hours at the dump collecting cans and other metals that he then sells to Lebanese companies that process the scraps and export them.
"I get around 10 US dollars per day but I have to pay five [dollars] for the 'tuk-tuk' (a motorized tricycle) to carry the trash to Nabaa (where he sells the metal), so, in the end, I make around four or five dollars in profit,’’ Eyad says.
Despite only making a small amount of money, he still manages to send money to his family back in Syria.
Working inside the landfill is no easy task. Eyad explained, "There is a lot of fighting for the trash. There is no future in this job. It is a disgusting job, and I want to leave it. My dream is to move to Germany to continue with my education."
Different children working there have reported being beaten up by older people who want to steal the waste the children collect.
"There are bad people who shout and scare us," says Marwan, a 13-year-old whose family cannot afford food. "Last time they hit me in the back and stole my metal. I don’t like this job."
While researching for this article, an official petition was made to access the Bourj Hammoud landfill from relevant authorities. There was no official response to this request.
There are a few centres that manage the waste, mainly in the eastern district of Nabaa. Many of these centres use child labour extensively, something illegal under the Lebanese penal code, hence all recycling centres that were approached did not allow pictures to be taken in their respective areas.
Despite this, one of the managers agreed to talk and said they receive over seven tons of waste per day collected by Syrian people.
"Many want to work here because of the crisis. We have 80% more people coming here compared to 2017 [before the crisis]," he adds.
Maral, the head nurse at Karagozian, a health centre in Bourj Hammoud offering low-cost healthcare services to vulnerable communities in the area, says that they receive many children with injuries at the centre.
"They will not come if they feel distressed, or have a cough. They will only come if they have an injury they cannot manage by themselves. It is the risk [of working with waste and machinery]. They are very strong people, so they live with disease. If they have some pain, they won’t come," she says.
Moreover, it is not only those working with trash who suffer from health issues, living near waste also has negative health consequences.
The landfill in Bourj Hammoud is located within 700 metres of one of Beirut’s most populous districts where the Lebanese-Armenian community lives alongside refugees from Syria and Palestine and migrant workers from Africa.
According to research published in the International Journal of Epidemiology, people living within a five-kilometre radius of a landfill experience negative health outcomes. The landfill is compromising the health of hundreds of thousands of people in Beirut.
During the summer months, Beirut frequently surpasses the 30 degrees Celsius mark, which causes chemicals from the landfill to evaporate into the air.
These gases are associated with higher rates of lung cancer, skin cancer, or depression. A report by the Red Cross suggests that climate change is making the evaporation rate even higher as the average annual temperature in Lebanon has been increasing at twice the global rate since the 1970s.
The Bourj Hammoud landfill has been operating for only eight years, not long enough to see a drastic change in the health of the population living nearby.
"In my opinion, in the coming years the rates of cancer patients and respiratory problems will increase enormously in this area," continues Maral. "The landfill will worsen public health over time by [emitting] more toxic gases and polluting the area rapidly."
Ali has been living with his family 500 metres away from the landfill for over nine months. The family fled war-torn Syria 10 years ago. Due to their financial struggles, they cannot afford to live elsewhere.
"We have a lot of cockroaches, flies, and rats at home due to the smell, we have to close the windows at home," Sofia, Ali’s mother, says.
Occasionally, garbage is burnt at the dumping ground, which exponentially deteriorates the air quality.
"We feel very angry when we see people burning the trash. We cannot do anything about it but we are trying to live, we have children," Sofia continues.
Living near the dump is not only making the air toxic but also, the leachate from the landfill, which is contaminated water coming from the trash, is polluting the tap water and nearby ocean.
Other residents living further away in other areas of the neighbourhood also reported smelling the mountain of waste when the wind blows from the sea towards the coastline.
However, the dump is not only hurting the land, it is also damaging those at sea.
"Can’t you see it? The water is brown from the oil and the garbage," says Tony, a fisherman who is disembarking from the boat after a night of fishing. Because of the landfill, fishermen have to increasingly travel further away from Beirut’s shores to capture fish.
"The fish from here is not good. It does not taste good. It tastes like diesel. The fish eats all the rubbish and oil, that is why. The [landfill] is a problem. If the wind blows in that direction [from the land] the garbage goes into the sea," another fisherman, who was getting ready to go home after a night’s work, said.
A study published by Science of the Total Environment journal found that fish located near the Beirut littoral have the highest concentration of ingested microplastics, these are plastic particles that are five millimetres in size or less.
The study also found that, on average, Lebanese people consume 31,500 microplastics per year just from seafood, which is roughly triple the number ingested in European countries.
Leachate spillovers and mismanagement from landfills play a big part in this. Although the negative effects of microplastics on human health are not completely understood — just as with tobacco in the 1950s — emerging literature links microplastic ingestion with alterations in the nervous system, changes in metabolism, or fertility among others.
Officials responsible for the landfill were contacted to discuss the health issues created by the disposal ground but no response was received.
Back on land, the waste collector community organises a football match every Saturday night. Most of them are in their teens and twenties, they had to stop school when the war started in Syria.
There seems to be an ambience of unawareness regarding the health risks involved with this job, nor do they seem to matter to them.
Here people live day by day, moment by moment. For the people who have come to the weekly football match, this is one of the few instances they get to enjoy life.
"After work, I need to breathe, I need to see the people. I come here to watch football and meet new people," says 13-year-old Marwaz.
"I always tell myself I should stop this job and play more football so I can be like the guys playing here. I am not happy, I feel exhausted," says the youngster.
Omar Hamed Beato is a freelance Spanish visual journalist who loves creating stories either in a photo or video format. His main areas of interest are climate change, conflict, gender, nature, and migration
Follow him on Instagram: @theguyyoumetbefore