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Beirut residents began to clean up their city soon after a 4 August explosion. Researchers are testing air and dust samples for toxic compounds.

AP Photo/Hassan Ammar

‘Absolutely horrendous.’ Scientists discuss Beirut’s blast and how they are coping with its aftermath

One month ago, today, 2750 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded in the port of Beirut, killing more than 200 people, wounding 5000 others, and leaving 300,000 residents temporarily homeless. The explosion, which left Lebanon’s main port and surrounding homes and businesses in ruins, has exacerbated the COVID-19 pandemic in a country that’s also grappling with inept leadership, a worsening economic crisis, and a 55% poverty rate.

Armed with brooms and shovels, Beirut residents soon took to the streets to clean up their city, and now, reconstruction has begun. ScienceInsider spoke with three scientists who lived through the blast and are now studying its aftermath.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Salim Adib is an epidemiologist at the American University of Beirut (AUB) and a consultant for the Lebanese Ministry of Public Health (MoPH). He studies the distribution and causes of noncommunicable diseases, including cancer, and preventive public health measures.

Najat Saliba is an atmospheric chemist and director of AUB’s Nature Conservation Center. Her research focuses on air pollution and the chemical transformation of aerosols.

Rola Husni is the head of the infectious disease division and infection control program at the Lebanese American University Medical Center-Rizk Hospital. She spearheads infection control in five hospitals and frequently interacts with MoPH.

Q: Where were you when the explosion occurred on 4 August?

S.A.: I was having a conversation at an office 500 meters from the explosion. At first, we heard something that sounded like a warehouse of full firecrackers going off. I could see the smoke coming out of the port, and then these noises sort of faded, and I said: “Looks like it’s over.” Then a huge explosion came up, and I heard a terrible wheeze, a sinister noise. I saw a huge cloud flashing in my direction. I lived through the civil war in Lebanon, but this was the moment I was sure I was going to die.

I later realized I fell backward, and then a huge table sort of fell on top of me. Two walls collapsed behind me. I dug myself out of the rubble and left the building. After that, I was just counting on the kindness of strangers to look me over and move me inside. It was total chaos in Beirut. Total chaos. At the ER at the American University of Beirut, they proceeded to staple me and close my wounds.

N.S.: I was at home, having a Zoom meeting with two friends of mine. We were discussing how much our local research is relevant to the global scientific community. It was such an uplifting conversation. Then this happened. The first explosion felt like an earthquake. Each of us on the call wanted to run to their loved ones. Later that day, I learned that one of my friends was injured by the blasts.

Q: What did you see on the ground in Beirut?

S.A.: Some of the views in the street were ghastly. Absolutely horrendous. There were bodies that were cindered in one piece—transformed into a piece of charcoal. I could only imagine myself in Pompeii the day Vesuvius blew up and transformed people into vitrified mass. My mother’s house in the Gemmayze neighborhood was another disaster. That community is full of elderly people who have lived there all their lives. Beautiful buildings, old heritage—all badly damaged. Lebanon is going through bankruptcy—both government and the citizens. Even as a doctor and a professor at AUB, I don’t think I can afford what needs to be done to make my mother’s apartment livable again.

Q: What are the greatest health concerns following the explosion?

R.H.: The day of the explosion we had 300 injured patients coming into our small emergency room. The critical ones we admitted. The noncritical patients were received in an outdoor hospital area we had set up. We were overwhelmed for 48 hours—all our intensive care units were full.  The first thing I thought was that it’s going to reduce coronavirus prevention to zero for the next few days. All of us were worried that we would have to deal with more and more COVID-19 patients.

Even before the explosion, people were tired of being confined. There were lots of celebrations and weddings in July and August, not to mention that we had people coming in on airplanes after the country opened again.  After the explosion, nobody cared about putting masks on or social distancing. Many groups were coming together and cleaning without taking precautions. Before the explosion, we had maybe 15 or 20 coronavirus deaths and a few thousand cases in Lebanon. That number has gone up sharply. As of 2 September, we have 18,375 cases and 177 deaths.  

Q: Has the explosion affected your COVID-19 research?

R.H.: We were planning to initiate a population-based antibody study in August to see where we are in terms of immunity. The plan is still on, but we postponed the study until the end of September. Two weeks after the explosion, we did do PCR [polymerase chain reaction] tests on people who worked in the hospital—doctors, nurses, laboratory workers, housekeepers—on the day of the explosion itself and the day after. We did about 200 PCR tests in one hospital, 80 in another, 100 in the third, and the results from the fourth still need to be analyzed. All but one test came back negative. Everyone had worn masks, so we learned that if we can help others in crisis, we can stay safe by wearing a mask.

Q: Are there concerns about lingering chemicals from the explosion, and are you studying them?

S.A.: Most of the fumes, various types of nitrate oxides, that came out of the explosion are gone. The chemicals dissipated in the days after the explosion. But some of the dust that has been deposited all over the city may still be carrying toxins. I assume that we’ll have lots of asthma and allergies.

N.S.: When you’re dealing with this huge amount of demolition, cleanup, and reconstruction, you generate lots of particles in the air that might cause acute and chronic health issues depending on the duration of exposure. We have collected dozens of samples from the ground and from the air. We are worried about high levels of heavy metals, asbestos, leftover chemicals from the blast, and so on, in the air. Dust alone, regardless of what is in it, can cause health damage, including asthma and pulmonary diseases. There’s something else we may be able to learn from the dust on the ground. There was something that detonated this ammonium nitrate. Until now, we don’t know what it was. We want to see whether explosives or hazardous materials have precipitated on the ground. We also don’t know what else was stored at the port, so for example, if batteries were there, heavy metals would deposit onto the ground.

Because pipes in some buildings have exploded, we are also worried that sewage might be infiltrating into the main potable water lines. That's why we will be testing the water supply.

Q: How can people in Beirut stay safe during this period of reconstruction and recovery?

N.S.: We really need to ask people who are working on demolition to put up nets to contain debris, spray the building with water to reduce the resuspension of particles, and all these safety measures. People who do the cleanup need to wear N95 masks, long pants, long sleeves, and goggles to protect the skin and eyes from irritants, such as glass dust.

R.H.: The ministry of health is increasing its efforts to remind everybody … to wear masks around each other in order to mitigate the effect of the explosion on the spread of the coronavirus. At the hospital level, we came up with a communication plan about prevention and the necessity to wear masks at all times. Some workers were injured or sick, and they have not come back to work. We need all the health care workers we have.