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01 April 2003

UNEP Says Smoke from Burning Oil Creates Health Risks in Iraq

(U.N. agency monitoring environmental consequences of conflict) (840)
The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) says satellite images
reveal that toxic smoke plumes from the Rumailah oil fields in
southern Iraq fired by Iraqis to deter coalition forces have weakened
over the past several days but continue to threaten inhabited areas
with smog.
UNEP, which is monitoring events in Iraq in an effort to identify
potential environmental risks, said in a March 31 press release that
three of the seven oil wells originally set on fire in southern Iraq
near Basra are still burning, and toxic fumes are also emanating from
oil-filled trenches and bomb-ignited fires in Baghdad. Smoke from oil
fires contains contaminants such as sulphur, mercury, dioxins and
furans.
"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," said UNEP Executive
Director Klaus Toepfer. He added that there is an urgent need to
monitor air quality in the affected areas.
UNEP is currently conducting a study to gather data and information on
the Iraq environment that will facilitate any future field
investigations aimed at identifying pollution "hotspots" threatening
human health and the environment. Funding for environment-related
activities has been included in the U.N.'s recent $2,200-million
appeal for emergency assistance to Iraq and neighboring countries over
the coming six months.
Following is the text of the press release:
(begin text)
United Nations Environment Program
March 31, 2003
Air pollution from Baghdad fires poses risks for human health and the
environment, says UNEP
Nairobi -- 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.
See www.unep.org for an extensive collection of environmental data and
documents on conflict and environment in the region.
(end text)
(Distributed by the Office of International Information Programs, U.S.
Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)



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