Spring 2008 Vol. VI, No. 3
Its War on the Environment
The full environmental impact of the
July 2006 war has yet to be properly assessed. Indeed the effects of the
damage are still unfolding. In south Lebanon, for example, 10 new cluster
bomb sites are identified every month. At the same time, it is too early
to calculate properly the permanent effect of the Jiyyeh oil spill on
the marine environment and coastal ground water supplies. Mindful of these
problems, several AUB research scientists, some supported by the Task
Force for Reconstruction and Community Service set up by President Waterbury
in response to the war, have carried out valuable research to determine
the environmental impact of the war on land and sea.
One of the first to go into action was a team from the Department of Animal
Sciences under the leadership of Professor Elie Barbour. Their mission
was to assess the level of contaminants in marine life as a result of
the July 13 and 15 bombing of the Jiyyeh Power Plant located 30.3 kilometers
south of Beirut.
The bombing resulted in a huge oil spill along the 225 kilometer Lebanese
coastline, releasing 15,000 tons of number six heavy fuel oil into the
Mediterranean Sea, driven by north-setting currents toward the northern
parts of the shore. This heavy fuel oil is among the most difficult to
combat: it is highly viscous, slow to disperse, and has a tendency to
sink to the seabed and remain there over time, affecting the ecosystem
that takes decades to rehabilitate.
The major contaminants originating from the oil spill and known to cause
serious damage to the marine life include the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon
(PAH) compounds, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), and metals (vanadium/cadmium).
Sixteen PAH compounds are presently classified by the US Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA) as probable human carcinogens. The Barbour team
wanted to establish pollution levels of these contaminants in two fish
species (mullet and rabbit fish, also known as marbled spine foot) and
oysters, all staple foods for local fishermen and their families.
Working with Greenpeace divers who were assisting the Lebanese government
in assessing and dealing with the spill, the Barbour team collected 20
samples per specie (a total of 360) at specific times from each of six
sites, including two control locations south of the bombed Jiyyeh plant
and untouched by oil bearing current. The four contaminated locations
were north of the Jiyyeh plant in Beirut (30.3 kilometers), Tabarja (57.9
kilometers), Amchit (72.4 kilometers), and Barbara (78.3 kilometers).
All are predominantly rocky sites and at the time of sampling black oil
was clearly present on the sites.
Testing showed higher levels of mean total PAH (tPAH) in oysters at five
of the six sites. All mean tPAH levels in the different marine organisms
obtained from the different harvest sites and at different collection
times were below the EPA limit set for PAH but higher than the AFSSA (Agence
française de sécurité sanitaire des aliments—the French food safety agency)
standard indicating that the sampled fish were unacceptable for human
The tPAH level in oysters harvested 72 days after the oil spill had dropped
more than 50 percent 305 days after the spill. This could be due to the
reported ability of oysters, as filter feeders, to undergo a self-purification
catabolism of the tPAH compounds. Previous reports have documented the
ability of marine organisms to reduce tPAH accumulation, especially at
spawning, during which a significant amount of the fats in oysters is
lost, thus reducing the level of the fat soluble-tPAH in their bodies.
What is of particular note in Barbour’s research is that the most highly
significant positive tPAH levels were observed in the rabbit fish harvested
from the shores of Beirut. This could be caused not by the oil spill but
by the long history of exposure to tPAH in marine organisms off the shores
of Beirut—a populated area with a high density of vehicles and gas stations
that dump used engine oil into sewers that feed into the Mediterranean
While the tPAH levels were found to have dropped in the marine species,
those of heavy metals—lead, nickel, and vanadium—were found to have increased
from one testing to the next. Because heavy metals bind to proteins, they
do not degenerate easily. In fact, quite the opposite happens: their levels
rise. With lead already 2.5 times higher than recommended levels and nickel
increasing, it too may soon reach risk level. The risk level of vanadium
is not known so it cannot be calculated.
Barbour explains that the team’s research, while invaluable, is only the
beginning. He believes much more should be done on a national level to
further assess the oil spill impact and review the AUB findings. “We are
the only team to have carried out such tests to date,” he explains. “We
could not have done it without support from the Task Force and the marvellous
young people on the team, but it is not enough. There needs to be much
more done at the national level.”
Mona Betour el Zoghbi, an MSc student in environmental health, has focused
her attention on the impact of the Jiyyeh spill on groundwater, particularly
on the coastal aquifers. Her objective is to detect whether there is heavy
fuel oil contamination in groundwater resources along the coastline and
to propose the necessary intervention and remedial measures to be taken
in case of oil contamination. As groundwater is a main water resource
in Lebanon, its potential contamination would present a public health
threat—a threat that if configured by the study—could need to be qualified.
As in the Barbour study, el Zoghbi will be using standard testing procedures
to determine levels of PAHs, PCBs, metals (vanadium and cadmium, which
are oil based, and nickel/mercury/lead) and testing pH/salinity/ TDS/EC*
to determine water quality.*
Working with local municipalities, mayors, and private individuals, El
Zogbi identified wells for water collection at three sites: Ras Nabi Younis,
close to the Jiyyeh spill; in the vicinity of an oil storage tank in Dora;
and, for control, at Abeye, 400 meters inland from the coast. She will
perform samplings twice at the peak of the dry and wet seasons.
The samples collected at Ras Nabi Younis across a north-south arc, coming
inland by about 400 meters, will also be used to determine if there is
salt water intrusion bringing oil in from the sea. At Dora, she is assessing
possible oil contamination of ground water from the regular oil handling
activities that take place there, in comparison to the spill findings.
There are no wells in Dora itself so the sample arc reaches inland towards
Antelias, Fanar, and Sin El Fil, all populous, mixed usage urban locations.
Abeye is a purely residential location and has both public and private
wells. El Zogbi will collect data on age, depth, elevation, and types
of usage for the wells.
So far el Zoghbi has taken samples in the dry season, eight samples per
location with one duplicate necessitating two days on site testing at
each location. Her first set of results reveals no oil contamination in
the studied water samples, which were taken at the peak of the dry season.
So far at least, it can be said that the studied groundwater aquifers
have not been contaminated by the oil spill.
El Zoghbi started the second section of the fieldwork at the peak of the
wet season in winter 2008, collecting water samples once again and conducting
the lab tests and analysis, to determine the impact of precipitation and
rainfall on the potential mobilization of contaminants.
Maya Yammine first began her research on the impact of landmines and unexploded
ordinance (UXO) on the land and on human populations of South Lebanon
in 2005 in the village of Kfarhouneh. With the advent of the July 2006
war, when Israel dropped four million cluster bombs on South Lebanon,
an estimated one million of which are unexploded, the UXO problem took
on unprecedented dimensions. Yammine has expanded her study to include
three main periods: May 2000 – May 2004, May 2004 – July 2006, and August
15, 2006 (post July war) to date.
Her objective was to describe the situation regarding the number, distribution,
and impact of landmines and cluster bombs (CB) and to give a primary evaluation
of the economic losses caused by landmines and UXO in terms of agricultural
production and human capital during these periods.
Yammine explains that no precise methodology exists to assess these impacts
and most of the research is based on her own field observations, official
records, and other sources including data from international organizations,
military mine action groups, interviews with farmers, government and non-government
sources, mine clearance officers, and health experts.
Her findings revealed that despite landmine clearing efforts between May
2000 and July 2006, approximately seven million square meters of South
Lebanon were infested with landmines and UXO. When the war officially
ended in August 2006 over 35 million square meters were infested with
over a million unexploded CBs.
Yammine selected GIS analysis to assess the loss of agricultural output
overlaying a land use map with landmine and CB locations maps to determine
the land use of dangerous areas. Cultivated lands were singled out and
their ratio from the total dangerous areas calculated. Knowing total yield
per hectare and producer price for the crops (from the FAO database),
she determined the yearly losses of agricultural output due to the presence
of landmines and UXO for each period of time.
One problem Yammine encountered was that land use maps did not show the
type of crop harvested. Her interviews with farmers revealed that they
produced primarily tobacco and wheat. Knowing total wheat and tobacco
production for 2004 she was able to calculate the ratios for each crop
to the total and apply it to contaminated fields to determine surface
area of wheat and tobacco infested with land mines. Working according
to the methodology described above, she estimates economic loss for May
2000 – May 2004 to be $1.8 million; for May 2004 – July 2006 to be $441,000;
and for the post July war period to be $7.5 million.
Yammine is also collecting data to determine the losses in productivity
associated with the number of people who died and were injured between
May 2000 and July 2007.
Yammine says that the lack of accurate information makes it difficult
to arrive at precise figures. She also points out that as new CB sites,
deaths, and injuries are revealed each month, the results of her initial
research will need regular updating in any future studies. Her concern
remains the devastating impact of UXO and CBs in South Lebanon. GIS results
confirm that there are 546 forested and 483 agricultural areas representing
severe disruption and danger for the local population as well as pollution
due to leaking chemicals and the economic blight caused by living on a
AUB Associate Professors Najat Saliba (chemistry) and Alan Shihadeh (mechanical
engineering) called upon Task Force support for a study commissioned by
the Lebanese National Council for Scientific Research (LNCSR) into air
pollution levels of Beirut following the Israeli bombings and resulting
extensive demolition and reconstruction. The air pollution indicators
they selected for the study included airborne particulate matter, asbestos,
heavy metals, and PAH. Only data on particulate matter is currently available;
the rest is still being analyzed. Because particulate matter higher than
10 is generally unable to penetrate deep into the human respiratory system,
they are focusing on PM 10 and PM 2.5, two fractions of particulate matter
corresponding to particles below 10 and 2.5 micrometers in aerodynamic
The investigators chose four sites for sampling, two in Haret Hreik—the
focus of the heaviest bombing in Beirut—, the LNCSR Building on the old
Airport Road, and the roof of the Chemistry Building at AUB. The latter
two are comparison sites, AUB representing a site where air pollution
is expected to be minimal, while LNCSR is a location where air pollution
is expected to be typical of a high traffic area. In Haret Hreik, one
sampling station was installed on the roof of the Municipality Building
and another on the roof of a threestory residence on the main Haret Hreik
The team took approximately 30-40 24-hour average air samples on different
days of the week from each of the four sites between December 2006 and
July 2007 and discovered that the average PM levels for all locations
were within Lebanese national standards except for PM 2.5 at the LNCSR
location. However, at all sites there were measurements that exceeded
national standards, most especially at the Haret Hreik Municipality. The
data thus indicates that Haret Hreik’s air pollution levels routinely
hover near the upper limit of what is acceptable air pollution risk and
frequently exceed the Lebanese standard. The authors say that while this
result is not critical, it should be closely monitored.
* pH measures the acidity or alkalinity of the solution
and helps to indicate the type of contamination. The acceptable range
for drinking water is between 6.5 and 8.5.
* Electric conductivity allows us to determine the concentration of dissolved
solids and other chemicals that cause ionization in the water solution
and is used as an indicator of water purity.
* Salinity is the saltiness or the dissolved salt content in water, which
affects how water can be used and the type of organisms that can live
in a water body.
* Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) shows the content of organic and inorganic
substances in water and is an indication of the aesthetic quality of water.
Acceptable TDS levels in drinking water are below 500 mg/L.
All these indicators are related to each other and together help determine
both the overall physical and chemical quality of the water body and the
presence of contamination.
If your refrigerator is more than ten years old, chances are it’s about
40 percent less efficient than newer, Energy Star-qualified models and
may guzzle enough power every year to light a typical household for up
to four months.
The team notes things that can be done to reduce the
potential adverse health impact of particulate matter: removing shoes
on entry, prohibiting indoor tobacco smoking, cleaning surfaces regularly
with wet cloths, using filter based air purifiers, and removing carpets.
Professor Saliba pays special tribute to Professor
Shihadeh, who prepared and calibrated the sampling machines, practically
building two of them from scratch. She also praises the student team’s
commitment and enthusiasm. Data assessment, which includes testing for
ions, nitrates/ sulphates, sulpha dioxide, and crystalline PAH x 2 is
Cold water wash
Procter & Gamble notes that if we all started to use cold water in the
washing machines, we could save enough energy to light two and a half
million homes for a year.