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Doctors worried over Lebanon’s trash crisis

Beirut / AP

Lebanon’s trash collection crisis, which sent thousands protesting into the streets last summer, is now in its eight month with still no resolution in sight. Though it has prompted political debates and occasional heated discussions, Lebanese doctors and medical professionals are increasingly alarmed by its effect on health.
At the emergency room at the Sacre Coeur hospital outside Beirut, doctors say they are seeing a spike in severe respiratory diseases and that it’s tied to the ongoing trash disaster.
The collection crisis erupted last July after authorities closed the primary landfill for Beirut and the surrounding coastal governorate without providing an alternative. Thousands took to the streets and the demonstrations were a catharsis of discontent directed at the political class, which has walled itself off from popular opinion and failed to provide other basic services such as water, electricity and drainage.
But the protests died down and politicians have been in no hurry to solve the disaster. Politicians have instead been occupied with containing the fallout of an abrupt Saudi Arabian decision to cancel $4 billion in aid, most of it marked for the army.
It’s not just Sacre Coeur that is under strain — hospital beds across Beirut have been full this winter, partly because of a panic over swine flu, which Health Minister Wael Abou Faour said took four lives through mid-February, but doctors say more patients are coming in because of the garbage.
“We’re seeing new profiles in the emergency rooms this year,” said Joelle Khadra-Eid, an ER doctor at Sacre Coeur. “These are people who didn’t have asthma or allergies when they were young. They’ve been exposed to … pollution that wasn’t around before.”
Beirut streets are kept relatively garbage-free — which has helped pacify the public — and the trash is being pushed to the city’s periphery, where it piles up along the roadside and the banks of the Beirut River. “In some cases, they start burning the trash, and then we see widespread breathing difficulties and skin infections,” said Rachid Rahme, the director of Sacre Coeur’s emergency and critical care units.

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