x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Pollution from quarries raises RAK villagers' cancer risk

Ras Al Khaimah residents demand action after FNC report links poor air quality to forms of cancer.

A fine layer of dust collects on everything in and around Rashed Abdullah’s house.
A fine layer of dust collects on everything in and around Rashed Abdullah’s house.

RAS AL KHAIMAH // Floating white dust particles fill the heavy air. They settle, covering cars with a thick layer of grime. People living nearby struggle to breathe, or to open their eyes.

The dust comes from a cement quarry just two kilometres from the northern coastal village of Khor Khwair. The area is home to two of the nation's largest quarries and four cement plants. Their pollution blankets the town.

Through the haze it is almost impossible to distinguish the top of the quarry from the sea behind it.

Residents are neither happy nor healthy.

"We're overwhelmed with cement dust every single day," said Rashed Abdullah, 37, an Emirati. "The quarry and cement companies circled our village, leaving us no more room to breathe."

The health problems caused by the quarries have long been a concern and were raised again last week by members of the Federal National Council.

In a report on the environment presented by the council's committee for foreign affairs, planning, petrol, mineral resources and fishing, UAE University found a link between air pollution and breathing problems, as well as some cancers and psychological disorders.

The report blamed the quarries' use of explosives and crushing machines, saying that 40 per cent of children and 15 per cent of the nation's population suffered from asthma due to the poor air quality.

"[There are still] dust particles floating around the Siji area [in Fujairah] from open quarries," Afra Al Basti, executive director of the Dubai Foundation for Women and Children, told the meeting.

But the Minister of Environment and Water, Dr Rashid Ahmed bin Fahad, told the meeting there was no scientific proof that air pollution was causing cancer and psychological problems.

The town's residents disagree, arguing they have to live with the poor air quality.

Mr Abdullah said his five children suffer breathing problems caused by the constant dust, even though he keeps them indoors.

"They can't play outside a lot because it can be dangerous for them in the long run," he said. "The first quarry company arrived here in 1975, followed by a second one three years later and then more in the 1980s. But I was born here before they started their work, this is my ancestors' land."

He is not the only resident with such strong feelings.

"Year after year, it keeps getting worse," said Salem Mohammed, a 50-year-old Emirati. "It wasn't like this when I was born and it's really become unbearable."

More people are getting sick. Residents say the biggest problem is asthma among children. Almost everyone in Mr Salem's family has suffered from respiratory diseases.

Mr Abdullah sees people being taken to hospital with symptoms almost every day.

"So many people end up in hospital and no one cares," he said.

Doctors agree that a lot of the cases at nearby hospitals are due to the dust.

"We get a lot of patients with breathing problems - 10 to 15 a day," said Dr Nawal Ibrahim, at Shaam Hospital in the Nakheel area.

Predominant are chest infections. Although the lungs can cope with some dust, severe inhalation can result in permanent damage to the lungs and heart.

"This might be because of the dust. Patients get lung disease sometimes because they are outside a lot," said Dr Ibrahim. "It's a very big problem in Ras Al Khaimah."

In 2008, the Government introduced strict air-quality guidelines to stop quarries generating clouds of dust and toxins.

They set limits on the amount of sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, suspended particles and breathable dust permissible at quarries. But residents claim it has made little difference.

Although efforts to curb dust emissions were made in the past, the problem still lingers in Fujairah and RAK, where more than 90 per cent of the quarries and crushing plants are located. Residents say their complaints have been brushed aside.

"I've told the municipality many times about this but nothing ever changes," said Mr Salem. "There's really nothing else we can do."

Mr Abdullah said the villagers of Khor Khwair want the quarries closed.

"We've all asked the municipality and the Government to [make the quarries] stop and move away but they just don't listen to us," he said. "They ignore us and keep telling us to move ourselves, but we've been here all our lives. They're the ones who should leave - this is our land and we're not going anywhere."

cmalek@thenational.ae