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Air pollution from Baghdad fires poses risks for human health and the environment, says UNEP

Nairobi, 31 March 2003 – Toxic smoke from burning oil wells in southern Iraq and from oil-filled trenches and bomb-ignited fires in Baghdad are the clearest evidence so far that the current conflict may further damage Iraq’s already highly stressed environment, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

“The black smoke that we see on television and in satellite pictures contains dangerous chemicals that can cause immediate harm to human beings – particularly children and people with respiratory problems – and pollute the region’s natural ecosystems. There is an urgent need to monitor air quality in the affected areas as soon as possible,” said UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer.

“Meanwhile, although the oil fires in southern Iraq are much smaller than what we saw in 1991, they too remain a potential concern for human health and the environment,” he said.

Satellite images reveal that smoke plumes from the Rumailah oil fields near Basra have weakened over the past several days but continue to threaten inhabited areas with smog. Smoke from oil fires contains a range of contaminants such as sulphur, mercury, dioxins and furans. Fortunately, only three of the seven oil wells originally set on fire are still burning.

UNEP is currently monitoring events in Iraq in an effort to identify potential environmental risks. Aside from the smoke, the other major evidence so far of environmental stress is the increase in plankton productivity in the Shatt Al Arab estuary and surrounding waters.

The above-normal level of activity may be due to the larger quantities of nutrients draining into the Gulf as raw sewage from Basra through canals and the various waterways associated with the Shatt Al Arab. Wastewater and garbage from the unusually large number of ships in the area are likely to also contribute to the phytoplankton blooms. In the past, increased plankton productivity in shallow waters such as the Kuwait Bay has led to large die-offs of fish.

Other potential risks that typically need to be monitored during conflict include the possible destruction of petrochemical plants and factories and storage facilities of industries that employ hazardous chemicals and generate toxic wastes. Among others, these could include the foam, fertilizer, paper and pharmaceutical industries.

UNEP is currently conducting a background study to gather data and information on the Iraq environment. This study will facilitate any future field investigations aimed at identifying pollution “hotspots” threatening human health and the environment.

UNEP is also prepared to provide technical advice in the post-conflict period on reducing environmental risks and rehabilitating damaged sites. This work should be integrated into humanitarian assistance programmes involving water, sanitation, refugees and displaced persons, shelter and so on.

“Rapid action to repair environmental damage can often support humanitarian relief efforts in vital ways,” said Mr. Toepfer. “For the longer term well-being of Iraq’s people, it is essential that environmental concerns be incorporated into any future rehabilitation programmes.”

Funding for environment-related activities has been included in the United Nations’ recent US$2.2 billion appeal for emergency assistance to Iraq and neighboring countries over the coming six months. Additional funding has been provided to UNEP by the Government of Switzerland.

Note to journalists: For more information, please contact in Nairobi, Eric Falt at +254-2-62-3292 or +254-733-682656 (cell); Nick Nuttall at +254-2-62-3084 or +254-733-632755 (cell); or Michael Williams in Amman on Swiss cell phone +41-79-409-1528 or Michael.Williams@unep.ch. See also www.unep.org for an extensive collection of environmental data and documents on conflict and environment in the region.

UNEP News Release - 2003/18