Beirut blast may have left blanket of hazardous dust over city, says expert

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - While the early cloud of pollutants and Nitrogen dioxide produced by Tuesday night’s blast in Beirut has dissipated, the city is likely blanketed in a coat of potentially harmful dust particles, a leading Lebanese expert has warned.

No full scientific analysis of the debris at ground zero of the blast – Beirut port – has yet been done, says Najat Aoun Saliba, a professor of Analytical Chemistry and the Director of the Centre for Nature Conservation at the American University of Beirut. However, she said, a quick study to ensure there is no uranium or other radioactive substances has given the all-clear.

But Ms Saliba said that potentially harmful ammonium dust, finely ground debris and glass dust is potentially coating much of the city.

“I think environmentally what worries me now is the diversity and the waste generated from glass powders and from the dust that is going around in the city,” she said. “And now people are trying to clean up the mess in front of their homes and you can see roads covered with glass and even powders and this is extremely dangerous if inhaled.”

People and employees attend a mass over the victims who were killed in the blast, at the Al-Roum hospital at Ashrafieh area in Beirut. EPA

Workers are pictured at the devastated site of the explosion at the port of Beirut. EPA

A man sleeps near a damaged car near the site of Tuesday's blast in Beirut's port area. REUTERS

Workers line at the devastated site of the explosion at the port of Beirut. EPA

French President Emmanuel Macron visits the devastated site of the explosion at the port of Beirut. EPA

People and employees attend a mass over the victims who were killed in the blast, at the Al-Roum hospital at Ashrafieh area in Beirut. EPA

A view of the port of Beirut on January 25, 2020, left, and on August 5, 2020, a day after the explosion. AFP

Bride Israa Seblani poses for a picture in the same place where she was taking her wedding photos at the moment of the explosion. Reuters

People stand with their belongings as they leave their damaged homes. Reuters

A Lebanese man shows injuries on his back after the massive explosion in Beirut. EPA

Men are seen sitting inside a damaged home, following Tuesday's blast in Beirut's port area. Reuters

A pedestrian takes photos of a badly damaged building in Beirut. Bloomberg

A woman stands inside a damaged restaurant. AP Photo

Lebanese Druze clerics check damaged cars. AP Photo

A statue representing the Lebanese expatriate is seen in front of a building that was damaged by the explosion. AP Photo

People walk with their belongings in the area of Mar Mikhael and Gemayzeh. EPA

The curtains in the rooms of the Le Gray hotel in the Lebanese capital Beirut swaying in the wind. AFP

A view of a damaged Fransa Bank. EPA

People check damaged vehicles. EPA

Volunteers clean the streets amid the wreckage. Reuters

People carry belongings after evacuating their damaged housing units at area of Mar Mikhael and Gemayzeh. EPA

A destroyed Bank Audi SAL branch stands in Beirut. Bloomberg

A worker wearing a protective face mask stands at the entrance to a destroyed Fransabank SAL branch in Beirut. Bloomberg

Volunteers carry brooms as they walk to clean the streets. Reuters

A woman sits in front of a damaged building. EPA

A general view of the Beirut port area after the massive explosion. EPA

An aerial view shows the massive damage done to the Electricity of Lebanon building. AFP

A view of the damaged building of the Lebanese fashion designer Zuhair Murad. EPA

Volunteers gather aid supplies to be distributed for those affected by Tuesday's blast. Reuters

Lebanese men clears rubble, one day after the explosion at the Beirut Port, in the Gemayzeh area. EPA

Lebanese youth salvage a velvet sofa from a destroyed apartment in the Gemayzeh area of Beirut. EPA

Lebanese activists take part in a campaign to clean the damaged neighbourhood of Mar Mikhael. AFP

An injured Lebanese shop owner sits at her desk selling her wares. EPA

She cautioned that people should wear masks and gloves and spray lots of water to settle any airborne particulates. But also cautioned that cheap paper masks would not be able to filter out the finest – and potentially some of the most harmful – dusts.

“I'm telling people that the same precautions that you take for the pandemic you need to keep them and actually double down on them,” Ms Saliba added.

She advised thick gloves when handling broken and fine glass dusts, a face shield or goggles to prevent dust from getting in eyes and heavy-duty masks to prevent inhalation.

Also of great concern for Ms Saliba is that little is known about what chemicals were in the toxic fire and what might still be around the city.

“Chemically speaking, ammonium nitrate on its own will produce, [Nitrogen dioxide] NO2, and we saw that with the brown smoke over Beirut on the night of the blast,” she explained. “What we know today is that … the brown smoke that was there on the night of the blast has dissipated.”

Although, that doesn’t mean it’s now safe.

“We need the inventory of what was there during the blast and we need to take samples from the ground,” she said. “What are the other chemicals that were burning with the ammonium nitrate? I'm sorry, I don't have an answer for that because we were not able to do thorough chemical analysis,” she told The National.

“We don't know whether there are other chemicals stored and that in addition to what they’re saying, the cars, the metal, the structures, the fuel perhaps, I'm not sure what that was in it. We need a clear mapping of the industrial facilities that are in the area and for the material that were stored in the containers.”

On the cloud of red, orange dust rising from the blast, she said that AUB air quality monitors picked up the spike in particulates and pollutants to hazardous levels. But she said these dropped within hours of the explosion as wind cleared the air and while potentially harmful in quantity, they are not uncommon in the notoriously polluted city.

“Usually, when we get dust storms from the desert close by, we get to this level sometimes. But what is more important is the amount of NO2.”

This, she warned, is very dangerous.

Updated: August 6, 2020 07:39 PM

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