Asbestos, silica, mercury and lead are among thousands of toxins released by the huge earthquakes in February that killed more than 54,000 people in Turkey and Syria.
Reuters spoke to a dozen environmental health professionals and experts who said that huge plumes of dust released from demolished buildings are carrying poisons into rivers and plants, lungs and organs, risking serious health problems for years to come.
The sheer volume of debris left by the quake is enormous, even compared to other major disasters. The United Nations estimated the disaster generated at least 10 times as much rubble as the last big Turkish earthquake in 1999.
People in many places have rushed to clear mountains of wreckage and dumped the contents of buildings indiscriminately, according to numerous eyewitness reports and television footage.
Some experts said a ‘secondary disaster’ of toxic contamination could be even more severe than the quakes themselves.
“With an optimistic estimate, I would say that 3 million people will be sick,” said Mehmet Şeyhmus Ensari, civil engineer and Chairman of Turkey’s Association of Asbestos Dismantling Experts.
Turkey’s Ministry for Environment, Urbanisation and Climate Change, the Health Ministry, and the Disaster Management Authority (AFAD) did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Drone footage from Hatay, Turkey, on February 17, shows rubble and clouds of dust.
Drone footage from Hatay, Turkey. Feb. 17, 2023. REUTERS
Hatay province, Turkey’s worst-hit region, shows the scale of the unfolding health hazards.
A province of 1.7 million people and part of an area known as the Fertile Crescent, it is critical for agricultural production and the food industry, accounting for 14.5% of Turkey’s agricultural Gross Domestic Product (GDP), according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.
Efforts to dispose of the waste have been so haphazard that some locals are staging weekly protests calling for better protection. In April, a group of medics, environmental engineers and lawyers filed a lawsuit to stop dumping near homes, hospitals, places of worship, olive groves and coastal wetlands.
They said construction debris containing 85,000 toxic substances had been dumped in at least 15 sites. Reuters was not able to confirm that independently.
A local court has yet to rule on their appeal.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan faces the toughest reelection battle of his two decade rule at elections on Sunday amid widespread anger in the quake region over the speed of his government’s initial response. Erdogan has focused much of his campaign on pledges to rebuild the destroyed areas quickly.
A statement on the local government’s website on May 2 said that more than 70% of the rubble had been moved and authorities were still actively clearing 82 of the province’s roughly 500 districts.
Ensari, the chairman of the association of asbestos experts, told Reuters it had made “many applications” to the authorities as volunteers to supervise the demolition of buildings and handling the debris, “but our applications remain unanswered.”
The environment ministry did not respond to a request for comment on the applications.
The harms will manifest over decades, the experts said. Many more people – particularly children – will be liable to cancers, kidney disease and nervous disorders.
“Respiratory diseases, eye diseases, asthma attacks, allergic reactions, and lung diseases will increase,” said Ali Kanatli, head of the delegation of the Turkish Doctors’ Association in the quake-hit areas. “We will face these problems in the coming years.”
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After the quake
In normal demolitions, hazardous substances are removed from buildings before they are brought down.
Earthquakes make that impossible.
In many cities, rescue teams were replaced in the weeks after the quake by thousands of trucks and excavators clawing away at the mountains of concrete. More than 13,000 vehicles were deployed to work in the affected areas, according to the disaster management agency AFAD.
Deputy Environment Minister Mehmet Emin Birpinar said in a tweet on Feb. 25, the authorities would separate materials that are hazardous or recyclable from the rubble.
Birpinar said dust suppression systems were being used to prevent harmful substances like asbestos from circulating. He did not respond to requests for further details.
Turkey’s disaster regulations state that workers wearing protection should first ensure the dead have been removed, then especially white goods should be taken away and debris recycled or disposed of without causing pollution.
Reuters journalists observed some water trucks hosing down debris as it was lifted into trucks in cities including Antakya and Osmaniye, but in many other cases, there were no such measures.
Scenes of unprotected people, including children and rescue workers, moving through the dusty rubble played across television screens for weeks after the first quake struck on Feb. 6.
The quakes left a trail of destruction that could cost Ankara more than $103 billion, equal to one-eighth of Turkey’s 2021 GDP, according to the government.
They devastated multiple cities across 11 provinces, toppling homes and hospitals, mosques and monuments.
Across the affected regions, more than 300,000 buildings collapsed, needed to be demolished or were moderately damaged, according to a March statement from Murat Kurum, Minister of Environment, Urbanisation and Climate Change.
The U.N. Development Program (UNDP) says the volume of rubble generated from the destruction would top 100 million cubic meters (130 million cubic yards) – around 10 times the volume left by a major earthquake that hit Haiti in 2010.
If piled up, it would be the equivalent of over 38 enormous heaps, each the size of the Great Pyramid in Giza, Egypt.
The capital of Hatay province is Antakya. Whole areas were reduced to shattered concrete and steel.
Satellite images from before and after the quake show the trail of destruction along the western banks of the Asi river and the downtown area.
Satellite images showing Antakya city before and after the earthquake.
The illustration below shows how rubble storage sites should be managed, according to Birpinar’s tweets.
Birpinar said storage sites were being securely managed and incoming waste recorded in an inventory. Locations of sites were chosen for their ease of transportation but ecological factors such as distance to wetlands or protected areas, agriculture and residential areas were also considered.
Handled properly, the waste could be turned into a valuable product by being converted back into raw materials, said Professor Mustafa Ozturk, former Undersecretary at the Environment and Urbanisation Ministry.
Ozturk and others said much of the rubble that has been removed from Antakya has been stored in nearby temporary dumps, raising concerns about contamination.
Four locations visited or reviewed by Reuters were close to agriculture or settlements.
In order to prevent soil, air, and water contamination, as well as the spread of diseases, Turkey must properly manage the earthquake waste, Sedat Gundogdu, a marine biologist at the University of Cukurova, said in a letter published in the journal Science in late April.
“Despite the risks, Turkey has not implemented crucial occupational health and safety measures during the demolition of buildings, transportation, and management of construction and demolition wastes,” he wrote.
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Gündogdu told Reuters plastic, asbestos, heavy metals and other pollutants end up in the food chain forever.
The environment ministry did not respond to a request for comment on his letter.
Hazardous materials could be present in many areas of a building, from paint to pipes. Here are some of the main ones and examples of where they could potentially be found.
Illustration showing where various hazardous materials can be found in buildings.
A tweet from Birpinar outlined 19 temporary rubble storage areas in Hatay totalling around 1.3 million square meters, or the equivalent of about 200 soccer fields.
Reuters reviewed satellite images of the sites before the quake and following the dumping of rubble. One site, west of Antakya city, is only 50 meters from apartment buildings and surrounded by olive groves.
The large rubble pile appears to be exposed and spilling over into a field.
Satellite images show a dump site before and after the quake.
At another location in the hills east of Antakya, a rubble pile can be seen spilling into a gorge and encroaching on an olive grove.
Altan Arslan, a 51-year-old who owns the pavement brick and cement block factory where the dump is located, said he had donated the land to the government to use to store rubble after the quake.
He said thousands of trucks had arrived daily and the rubble had grown into a massive mound. Bulldozers then flattened the waste and pushed it towards a cliff side, sending some debris tumbling into the valley and creating large clouds of dust.
Satellite images show a dump site before and after the quake.
Of the hazardous materials, asbestos is the best regulated in terms of legislation in Turkey, said Aslı Odman, a faculty member at Mimar Sinan University’s department of urban and regional planning.
“There is no problem in terms of legislation,” she said, “but the legislation is currently suspended.” Turkey suspended its laws regulating asbestos exposure earlier this year, due to the scale of the disaster. The government did not respond to questions about when the legislation might be reinstated.
Demolition contractors are implementing their own plans based on the tenders they have received, said Odman and others.
“This is not in line with public health,” she said.
Determining how much toxic material is among the debris may be an impossible task, according to Linda Reinstein, co-founder of U.S.-based Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization.
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Asbestos-related diseases usually take many years to emerge, says the Turkish Thoracic Society – a time-period from between 10 years and 50 years after exposure. The risk of asbestos-related disease increases with the number of asbestos fibres inhaled over a lifetime, it says.
Diagram showing parts of the lungs affected by asbestos.
“There is no curative treatment approach for asbestos-related diseases,” the Turkish Thoracic Society said on its website.
Reinstein, of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, said “take-home exposure” is also a major risk. Hazardous dust can get into clothing and hair of those exposed to the site.
This in turn can expose others at home who can develop illness, she said.
Workers in Antakya said it can take several days to clear the debris of one building.
Drone footage from Hatay, Turkey, on February 13, shows excavators demolishing a partly collapsed building.
Drone footage of excavators demolishing a partly collapsed building in Hatay, Turkey. Feb. 13, 2023. REUTERS
Odman, the Mimar Sinan University academic, said workers involved in the cleanup face little chance of claiming compensation if, in future, they succumb to disease as a result of their exposure to toxins.
They won’t be able to document where they were when they were exposed to a given toxin or carcinogen, she said, because by this time they will have changed many construction sites and workplaces.
Not only the workers, but also the security forces and soldiers are in danger, she said.
“We don’t see them being protected in any way,” she said.
The Interior Ministry did not respond to a request for comment on protection for security forces.
Additional work and development
Prasanta Kumar Dutta
United Nations Development Programme; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Asbestos.com, The Mesothelioma Center; Maine Department of Environmental Protection; Health and Safety Executive, UK; United States Department of Labor; Centre for Radiation, Chemical and Environmental Hazards; Planet Labs PBC; NYC Department of Buildings.
Sara Ledwith and Daniel Flynn