Tuesday, December 01, 2020

Gazans recycle bomb wreckage to counter blockade, but the rubble is potentially toxic

By Yehudit Tzfat - November 25, 2019
Section: [Main News] [Features]
Tags: [Gaza]

On 12 November, fighting broke out between the Gaza Strip and Israel. After two days of violence that led to 34 Palestinians killed and 109 injured, Gaza was once again left in shambles. 

As Gazans begin to pick up the pieces of their life again, many labourers find money in the dust and wreckage. With the frequent bombings and Israeli-imposed blockade, a new industry has emerged in Gaza around extracting and reusing materials from destroyed buildings. This recycling business provides Gazans with a profitable way to rebuild, but it comes with a price on their health. 

In the aftermath of rocket fire and airstrikes, Gazans can be seen collecting gravel from the roads and extracting metal from bombed buildings. They then use these shattered materials to rebuild roads, homes and the coastal enclave’s harbour.

“The public are using these materials to rebuild their homes because it’s cheaper than the imports and available when the imports are prevented,” Dr Ahmed Hilles, chairman of the National Institute for Environment and Development and an expert with the Palestinian Environmental Quality Authority (EQA), said. 

Israel’s decade-long blockade keeps Gaza cut off from the rest of the occupied Palestinian territories. Israel restricts and even bans various construction materials like cement, steel reinforcement rods, pipes and gravel, arguing Hamas — the political organisation in charge of Gaza — will use the goods for military purposes. Coupled with a significantly high unemployment rate, Gazans are pushed to the brink. 

“The unemployment in the Gaza Strip pushes people to go in this direction,” Hilles said. “It’s a little source of revenue or economically can support some people to continue their life.”

The amount of money made from this work and the number of individuals employed fluctuates depending upon the kind of materials and level of rubble and debris produced, Hilles said. In some cases, employees can earn 1,000 NIS (nearly $300) from the work. 

But while Gazans are raking in money from this backbreaking work, they are doing so at a severe cost to their health. 

 “All of them suffer from health problems and some of the people die because they are working in dangerous areas and in dangerous conditions,” Hilles said.

Hilles said that many of the people he knows involved in this line of work suffer from poor or completely collapsed respiratory systems and have lung problems because of the dust inhalation. They also experience skin conditions from handling metals and chemical-leached materials. 

He mentioned that the cement itself poses a health risk as smashing the concrete causes dust and air pollution. Hilles stressed that the chemical run-off from the destroyed structures seeps into the underground aquifers and soil, contaminating Gaza’s water supply, and causing the produce and plants to absorb the toxins. 

“The pollution and contamination of the products and the byproducts of the bombing transported to the soil and to the water will be absorbed by the roots of the plants,” Hilles said. Apparently, nothing in Gaza is safe from the toxic pollution these bomb raids generate.

Hundreds of cancer cases are reported every month in Gaza. Hilles suggested these cases could be possibly linked to the environmental damage Gaza is experiencing. However, Hilles and his team of researchers have yet to study the correlation between health and the environment. 

The bombed remnants contain pollutants and hazardous chemicals. Through his research and testing, Hilles found traces of nickel, arsenic, lead, calcium and potassium. 

But Hilles cautioned that laboratory testing is poor in Gaza so determining the exact measures and types of harmful metals is difficult. Following the 2014 Gaza War, the EQA requested the United Nations send a delegation to examine the environmental damage Israel’s attacks had on the strip. The UN approved the trip, but the group was denied entry into Gaza by the Israeli military. 

However, after the 2008-2009 Gaza War, the EQA asked the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) to conduct an investigation and the UNEP was successful in carrying out that mission. Their findings concluded that nearly 600,000 tonnes of demolition debris were produced. 

“This report confirmed the contamination of the destroyed buildings with major pollutants of asbestos, zinc, and hydrocarbons,” Dr Khalid Qahman, assistant chairman of the EQA, said. 

“All the samples taken from the various sites tested positive for asbestos. More worryingly, some locations tested positive for crocidolite (blue asbestos), which is generally considered to be 500 times more carcinogenic than chrysotile (white asbestos),”  the report said. 

“A number of buildings were hit by ammunition that caused fires and partial or total destruction of the structure,” the report’s authors wrote. The study emphasised that fires contaminate the building or rubble with polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons and sometimes dioxins and furans  which are all extremely hazardous. 

“Israel is using the same weapons and bombs, so we are expecting at least the same results as those from the investigation done in 2008 and 2009,” Qahman said. 

Despite the limited screening abilities, Hilles asserted that Gazans’ health issues stem from the environmental consequences caused by Israel’s continuous assault. 

“We know that the public health and the cancer cases are a direct reflection of the environmental situation,” Hilles said. 

Regardless of the toxic effects this work brings, Hilles remarked that as an environmentalist, he appreciates the concept of recycling rubble. “But not in this way,” he said. “A lot of the irrigation measures and protection conditions should be taken into consideration.”

Money remains the issue in creating a recycling industry that is safe in Gaza.

“The environmental and safety measures need money,” Hilles said. “And the ministries don’t have enough money to make the work safe enough. They don’t have enough technologies or suitable experience to apply these eco-friendly practices. There is no law and there is no enforcement to follow up or apply the eco-friendly practices.”

When asked if Gazan labourers — upon learning about the detrimental health effects — are then abandoning this work, Hilles responded with a defeated sigh:

“There are no alternatives. We need this gravel to reconstruct and rebuild our homes.”


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