(Written by Marcel Irani)
17 November 2013 - The people of North Lebanon’s Koura district thought they were rid of asbestos. Despite the Eternit cement factory’s closure years ago, the threat of this carcinogen looms, with at least 700 cancer cases documented in the district.
Giant asbestos pipes are still exposed to the open air on the route from Chekka and Heri. There, hundreds of workers spent years at the Eternit company and some were directly hurt. The pipes were left untreated, shedding their asbestos fibers over a large swathe of the area, aggravating the health crisis.
Asbestos was used by the Eternit factory in its production process for years until it was announced that the material was carcinogenic.
“The company’s bosses did not know about the dangers of this material. After the scientific studies came out, the Eternit company closed its branches in various countries, due to public safety reasons,” explained Pierre Abi Chahine, head of Chekka’s Environmental Protection Association.
However, in Lebanon, the company’s owner – Swiss billionaire Stephan Schmidheiny – sold it at a cheap price to Lebanese businessmen, who continued to produce Eternit’s cement until 1991, when the residents filed a complaint demanding the company be closed.
“The reply came six years later through an official decision to do so,” Abi Chahine said. “The company went bankrupt and its owners fled. It was put under court supervision, but was not shut down according to international standards.”
Sentenced to Slow Death
The residents of Chekka and its surroundings were sentenced to a slow death. Asbestos did not just harm the factory’s former workers, it spread to their families and neighboring towns. The substance is breathed in and stays in the lungs. When the workers returned home, their clothes were full of asbestos particles.
Jamil Siddiq, a resident of Heri, said he lost relatives and friends town due to asbestos. “What made it worse is that we used to buy the dust collected by the companies. We would mix it with water and it would be like cement, which we used outside our homes.”
Siddiq lost his maternal uncle to cancer. He lists the names of those who have also died or are waiting to die from this disease in the town. “One day, the people will rise and kick the disease mongers from here. There is a limit to one’s patience,” he declared.
Dr. Emile Mansour, one of the founders of Chekka Dispensary, indicates the lack of an official count of mesothelioma cancer cases. “There are many cases. Asbestos spread all over the North, up until Zgharta,” he explained. “Some people died and some are terminally ill.”
“Many people live in fear and anxiety. Most know they have this substance inside them, but are not sure when it will take over,” he warned. “The catastrophe is bigger because many people used to buy this stuff and pour it outside their homes.”
“Those who could get their hands on this substance used to be considered lucky or someone with important contacts. People would beg the company’s management to buy the byproducts of Eternit. Mixed with water, it becomes a hard material and cheaper than cement. But no one knew they were placing death at their doorsteps.”
Abi Chahine confirmed the presence of more than 700 cases in the region. Around 300 died of this cancer in Koura alone. “The company did not close in the proper manner, according to internationally set standards, and this is not acceptable,” he said.
“The Lebanese state needs to conduct a comprehensive clean-up operation in Chekka and surrounding areas to rid them of Eternit. Its presence inside and outside homes endangers people’s lives. Each time it gets chipped or fractured, it releases fibers. Once inhaled, asbestos will enter the lungs and remain there,” explained Mansour. He indicated that Canada, after discovering the dangers of asbestos, “removed Eternit products from buildings and homes and buried them underground.”
However, successive Lebanese governments did not call for the closure of the factory according to such standards. “The issue is very complicated,” maintained a source at the Lebanese Environment Ministry. “Methods of disposal of this substance are difficult. That’s why they appointed a judicial guardian, so no one would touch them.”
According to international standards, disposing of asbestos products require that they are sealed with two insulating layers, covered in cement, and buried in a designated location. However, Abi Chahine maintained “nothing is difficult or impossible if the government decides to remove them in coordination with specialized companies. But it seems, until now, the decision has not been made.”
Mansour refused to answer companies related to the company. He considers environmental files related to Chekka to be “very dirty.”
“Why just stop at Eternit?” he asked. “None of the ministers will react … In return, local officials are not aware enough.”
Siddiq said, “The state sold the people of the area. Our politicians are more polluted than the companies. Or else, how would they allow something like this to occur, as if nothing happened?”
Company’s Owner Served a Jail Sentence in Italy
Abi Chahine contacted the company’s CEO, Stephan Schmidheiny, to demand compensation for Lebanese residents, as was provided to Italian residents. In June 2013, Italian courts sentenced Schmidheiny to 18 years in prison for causing the death of 2,200 people.
Schmidheiny did not reply to any of Abi Chahine’s letters and none of victims’ families in Koura went to the courts in Lebanon or Europe.
Eternit had to shut down its factories in Italy in 1986, six years after the ban of asbestos in that country. This is exactly what happened in Lebanon. However, here, justice is mute.