Friday,14 December, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1365, (19 - 25 October 2017)
Friday,14 December, 2018
Issue 1365, (19 - 25 October 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Shipping toxins

Egypt is on track to dispose safely of 1,000 tons of highly toxic pesticides, reports Mahmoud Bakr

Shipping toxins

The issue of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) has been at the top of the Ministry of the Environment’s list of priorities since 2004. According to reports by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), POPs are extremely hazardous to human health and damaging to the environment in the long term because they are highly persistent and take many years to decompose.

Since Egypt signed the Stockholm Agreement on the subject in 2004, the ministry has developed plans to get rid of these pollutants under its Sustainable Management of Persistent Organic Pollutants Project. The project aims at the safe disposal of POPs and another class of dangerous chemicals, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) used in electrical equipment, in addition to targeting the protection of human health and achieving sustainable development.


Shipping toxins

The project was initiated by a grant from the World Bank’s Global Environment Facility (GEF). Nine locations in Egypt have been targeted to destroy POPs, including Suez, Cairo, Giza, Damietta, Sinai, Alexandria, Beheira, and a number of power stations in other governorates. 

The project is working in coordination with the ministries of the environment, agriculture and land reclamation and electricity and renewable energy, and is managed by the Ministry of the Environment. An advisory committee has been formed to oversee the plans, and every participating authority has a representative on the committee.

Egypt recently disposed safely of a lindane pesticide shipment. The cargo, 220 tons of this toxic pesticide, was shipped to France for safe disposal in a special incinerator after being stuck in the Adabeya port in Suez for 19 years. The safe disposal cost $400,000, and it was a part of the 1,000 tons of highly toxic pesticides that Egypt still has to dispose of in a safe and environmentally-friendly manner.

The use of lindane is severely restricted by the 2001 Stockholm Convention to which Egypt is a signatory. Minister of the Environment Khaled Fahmi told Al-Ahram Weekly that the story of the shipment began in 1998. “Fifteen containers of lindane arrived at the port of Adabeya [17km west of Suez and 125km east of Cairo]. The goods were not unloaded because they were to be re-transported, so the cargo was kept in a transit area,” Fahmi said, explaining that this kind of transit shipment did not have custom clearances nor was it inspected.


Shipping toxins

“The shipment had embarked from France for transit through Adabeya. It was supposed to go to South Africa. After clearing import procedures, five containers were shipped to Dakar in Senegal,” Fahmi added.

“But the rest of the cargo was abandoned in the transit area, and the shipping agent responsible for the shipment’s entry into Egypt disappeared. Therefore, procedures for the release of the 10 remaining containers were not finalised. No one at the port knew what these were until the cargo was opened and analysed. Officials at the port were surprised to find lindane since this was banned three years prior to the arrival of the shipment in Egypt.”

The lindane cargo has since turned into a legal case investigated by various ministries. Egyptian bodies have tried to find a way to dispose safely of the cargo, but to no avail, until the initiation of the Sustainable Management of Persistent Organic Pollutants Project. “The project has worked under the umbrella of the Ministry of the Environment to find a scientific solution to the problem with the help of scientists and a committee from the World Bank. It was funded by GEF and the Egyptian government,” Fahmi said.


Shipping toxins

“There was a consensus that the shipment had to be transported outside Egypt to be disposed of in high-tech furnaces unavailable in Egypt,” he said.

The ministry announced an international tender for the safe disposal of the lindane in line with World Bank procedures. A Greek company won the tender, received the cargo, and began preparing it in accordance with UN and international standards. At the same time, a number of workshops were held to train Egyptians working in the field how to deal with similar situations.

“Then the phase of repackaging the stored lindane cargo in sacks marked with the UN logo started because the safe disposal of this toxic pollutant requires a special kind of container. The shipment was to be taken to France to be burnt in special incinerators. While the process of repackaging was ongoing, the ministry worked on obtaining the approval of the countries through which the shipment would pass, according to Basel Convention regulations,” the minister said.

Fahmi explained that the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal is a multilateral agreement negotiated under the UNEP. It aims at “promoting the environmentally sound management of exported and imported waste, especially in developing countries. The convention obliges the exporting country to notify the receiving and transit countries of materials transported.” 

The consent of these countries is a must before any shipments can be authorised. The convention states that an international movement document must accompany the waste shipment from the exporting country until it reaches its disposal point. Moreover, toxic waste shipments must be packaged, labelled and transported in accordance with international rules.


Shipping toxins

“After Egypt received the consent of the other countries, the lindane was transported in new containers while the old ones were cut up and added to the shipment. It was important to do this because the shipment had been in the port for so long, and we didn’t want any lindane residues on the containers,” Fahmi explained.

Shipping authorisation for the toxic waste was issued from Alexandria, which meant that the lindane shipment had to be shipped from Adabeya in Suez to the Dekheila port in Alexandria. But first a comprehensive study had to be conducted on how to transport the shipment under the highest safety standards. “The shipment was taken to Alexandria under heavy security where the MSC Laura container ship was waiting to take the cargo to France,” Fahmi remarked.

This step was executed by the project in collaboration with the Ministry of Agriculture’s Central Pesticides Laboratory, which analysed the lindane and conducted the inventory. Besides working on the lindane shipment, the Ministry of the Environment also assigned the Greek company to repackage another 10 tons of POPs which had been analysed by the Central Laboratory. On 8 August, the shipment was taken out of Egypt.

Ahmed Abdel-Hamid, manager of the Sustainable Management of Persistent Organic Pollutants Project, told the Weekly that the safe disposal of the lindane was “within the framework of the protection of the Egyptian and global environment from such pollutants, and in accordance with Egypt’s commitment to international conventions and treaties in this regard, including the Basel Convention on Hazardous Wastes and the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants.”

He added that “the Ministry of the Environment is currently working on the safe disposal of 350 tons of a cocktail of pesticides which have long been stored in a warehouse in Giza’s Saff area. After the Greek company won the tender to be in charge of disposing of these pesticides, it categorised them, and a detailed plan is being drafted for the safe disposal of them. We are also preparing an international tender for shipping the pesticides in accordance with World Bank instructions.”

Abdel-Hamid said that the Saff storage area constituted a health hazard for people residing in the area. “Disposing of these pesticides, which have been abandoned in storage for a long time, means environmental conditions will improve in the Saff area,” he said, adding that “more international tenders are being prepared because we want the best of the best in this field in order to ensure the safe disposal of POPs in Egypt.”

“Egypt has had to endure the presence of the lindane since 1998 despite the fact that it is prohibited to use or produce it,” Salah Suleiman, professor of chemistry at Alexandria University, told the Weekly. “Studies conducted by 26 scientists from 13 countries confirm that lindane is a cancerogenic substance and is a grave hazard to human health and the environment,” he added.

Poly Crono, head of the Greek Polico Company in charge of taking the lindane cargo out of Egypt, stated that “Egypt successfully and safely disposed of the lindane shipment.” She said that her company had dealt with a similar situation in Djibouti when this African country had wanted to dispose of 3,000 tons of POPs. “Egypt has great potential to dispose of all its POPs,” she added.

“Lindane pollutants affect the human nervous system as well as the genetic makeup. Exposure can cause birth defects as well as cancers, and these can vary from one substance to another of the 27 items on the POPs list. The effects depend on the duration of human exposure to the substance and the concentration of the substance during exposure. POPs do not decompose in water, but become concentrated in animal fat cells. If such animals are consumed, stored POPs move into the human body,” warn the experts on lindane.

Suleiman believes that the only safe way to dispose of POPs is by “oxidation in high-tech furnaces that aren’t available in Egypt or the surrounding region. These incinerators are available in Holland, Belgium, France, the UK and the US. We are lucky that some of these countries still allow their furnaces to receive shipments from abroad.”

He explained that cutting-edge methods to dispose of lindane are only available to a few advanced countries. “In Egypt, we can’t dispose of lindane by burying it because we will then be obliged to get rid of millions of tons of contaminated soil. Buried lindane also pollutes underground water. We have to protect our future generations from this highly toxic substance, and the best way is by incinerating it.” 

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