The capital is barely breathing: Erbil is at risk of cancer due to air pollution

30-01-2023 08:58
Smoke rises from an asphalt plant on the Erbil-Gwer road, screenshot from a video page of the Erbil Environmental Office. January 22, 2023.

Peregraf– Erbil

Tariq Harki lives in a village polluted by waste from nearby factories and refineries. Three members of his family have been diagnosed with cancer in the past four years and two have died following their diagnoses.

His village, Lajan, is located 20 kilometers (12 miles) south of Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region, and his house is just a block away from an industrial site.

"When I took my nephew to Iran for surgery, the doctor said his chest was completely blocked and he had 11 nodules. We told the doctor he didn't even smoke, but he said the situation had gone too far," Harki told Peregraf. The boy, who was just 15-years-old, would die from his cancer.

Later, Harki’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Despite numerous consultations with doctors and a several surgeries, she also died. His sister is currently undergoing treatment for cancer.

Previous investigations by Peregraf have shown the direct impact on public health caused by illegal refineries and factories in the Kurdistan Region, which contaminate the soil and the air with carcinogenic byproducts.

Hiwa Omar, head of the Bima organization, published an environmental monitoring report last year that found that "Erbil is the dirtiest province in Iraq" in terms of air quality. A primary cause is the more than 100 illegal refineries that operate outside of environmental regulations.

"These refineries are simply like big, boiling pots. Because of their substandard conditions, they are a source of emissions, [sending] many toxic and dangerous gases into the air," Omar said.

Haval Ahmed Mohammed, an environmental expert, told Peregraf that "there is no doubt that the waste from factories and refineries impacts air pollution."

"The Erbil Environmental Board should investigate this," he added.

Yet the link between industrial pollution and the prevalence of cancer and other lung, skin, gastrointestinal, and renal diseases is already well known to the authorities.

The Erbil Environmental Board, in its seasonal and annual reports, has found that the waste produced by refineries and factories is the main cause of air and environmental pollution in the governorate.

For example, the Board details the closure of a bitumen factory on the Gwer road in a post on its official Facebook page published on January 23, saying it was shut down because it was emitting heavy smoke and toxic gases.

But according to the Environmental Protection and Repair Board, no projects in Erbil were denied a permit due to non-compliance with environmental laws and guidelines in 2022. However, 734 projects were inspected and monitored in order to implement environmental requirements and guidelines. Some resulted in court cases and other sanctions.

In 2022, 2,214 people were diagnosed with blood diseases and cancer at Nanakali Hospital. According to statistics, 3,808 patients were diagnosed with the same diseases in 2021 and 1,052 patients in 2020.

It is not just Harki’s immediate family that is afflicted with cancer, but his neighbors as well. Around 2,000 people live in Lanjan and at least 42 people in the village have been diagnosed with cancer in the last three years and eight people have died.

"Mam Mohammed Shadiq, a villager, died of cancer a month ago, and the village headman is also currently suffering from cancer," said Harki.

"There are many miscarriages among women and there are many asthma cases," Harki said. "When we wash our cars, the next morning they are already covered with black smoke and waste."

He said that residents were asked to leave when the factory was first built, but they did not want to abandon their land.

Now they are desperate to leave. When they complain, the management of the factory does not respond. They hope that the government and the Environmental Board will step in and address the problem or shut down the site.

There are a large number of refineries and industrial sites in the Kurdistan Region, some of which have caused "environmental pollution", according to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Despite governmental decisions ordering their removal, many are still operating.

"During oil refining, gases are released, including toxic gases that cause cancer. Refineries should have filters to prevent these toxic gases from mixing with the air, but, unfortunately, I don't think those refineries in Kurdistan have a filter," said Dr. Sulaiman Jaafar Mohammed, who holds a doctorate in chemical physics, told Peregraf.

Mohammed used to work as an assistant professor at Salahaddin University and now is a senior scientist at the Integrity Testing Laboratory Inc. in Canada. His research has shown that the factories located between Kirkuk and Erbil emit high levels of toxic gases.

He said that gasoline refining and metal smelting, which both occur around Erbil, produce particularly harmful chemicals.

"Oil must be in a sealed warehouse at all stages, which is the international standard. Nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides, as well as hydrogen sulfide, these gases are dangerous and carcinogenic and the health risks they pose are much more apparent in those that live close to those factories and refineries," he said.

According to Law No. 8 of 2008 on Environmental Protection and Improvement, pollution of the environment and climate in Kurdistan is punishable by imprisonment and fines of up to 200 million dinars, depending on the type of violation.

Peregraf tried to get an official statement from the Environmental Board, but received no response.

Environmental organizations have repeatedly called on the authorities to force the illegal refineries and factories to abide by environmental regulations or close them down, but have largely been ignored.

"Illegal refineries, which are anti-environmental refineries, supply diesel for power generators and other domestic consumption," Omar said. "The factories were originally established without an environmental permit and environmental measures were not taken into account, such as proximity to populated areas."

"The government has failed to make sufficient progress in this area," he added.