x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Toxic wasteland may pose long-term health hazards

The battle to gain control over the rubbish dumps on the outskirts of the city is set to be a long one, says the EAD.

The Maqatra landfill site in desert between Abu Dhabi and Hmeem is eight kilometres long.
The Maqatra landfill site in desert between Abu Dhabi and Hmeem is eight kilometres long.

ABU DHABI // The battle to gain control over the rubbish dumps on the outskirts of the city is set to be a long one, admits Majid al Mansouri, secretary general of the Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi (EAD). Because of the complexity of the issues, he said, it was impossible to say exactly how long it would take to bring all the sites up to international standards, but interim measures would be introduced to ensure waste was properly treated before it reached the landfills.

For years, waste from Abu Dhabi's households, industries and hospitals has been simply dumped in the desert with little treatment, leaving the emirate now facing serious environmental and public-health threats. The long-term measures are likely to include efforts to minimise the amount of waste generated and the volume that reaches the dumps. However, at present, authorities lack a clear idea of exactly how much rubbish is produced by households and industries in Abu Dhabi.

The authors of last year's State of the Environment Report, published by the EAD, which is responsible for the new clean-up initiative, estimated that every inhabitant of the greater Abu Dhabi area generated about 2.3kg of waste every day. This figure, exacerbated by the fact that there are no large-scale recycling schemes in the emirate, is much higher than the average for member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which produce on average 1.54kg of waste per inhabitant per day.

"As industries often take care of their own waste, there is no precise information available on the waste created by that sector either," said the report. The amount of construction waste at Al Dhafra is estimated to range from 920 to 940 tonnes per day, a figure expected to grow as the rate of building increases rapidly. Hazardous waste is generated mainly by the oil industry and agriculture, with a smaller but significant contribution made by households disposing of such items as batteries, computers and mobile phones.

"Since hazardous substances are not collected separately from households in Abu Dhabi, their quantities can only be deducted on the basis of their estimated percentage of total municipal waste," said the report. "The amount of hazardous household waste that could be collected separately would increase to 740 to 1,100 tonnes per year in 2010 and to 875 to 1,300 tonnes per year in 2015. "These amounts are small compared with the amounts generated by industry."

The oil industry is responsible for many by-products with hazardous qualities, such as hydrocarbon drill cuttings and sludge, waste oil, catalysts, corrosion inhibitors and laboratory chemicals. Agriculture, on the other hand, relies on a large amount of fertilisers and pesticides. "Many hazardous substances are persistent, meaning that they break down very slowly in the environment," said the report. "They enter food chains through the groundwater or soil, being transferred from one species to another and becoming more concentrated in the process."

Chemicals, it said, could "cause higher mortality, slow down growth or disturb reproductive processes in plants, animals and microorganisms. In mammals, hazardous chemicals are transferred from mother to offspring through the placenta or the mother's milk." While the effects of short-term exposure to hazardous waste are well understood, and can include acute poisoning or burns, cancer, fetal damage and reduced fertility, the effects of long-term exposure to smaller doses are still not well understood.