News Stories

Middle Eastern Pollution?Old & New

Toxins produced by the mines and smelters of thousands of years ago may be affecting the health of people living today in the Middle East. ?Even after 2000 years of dilution by environmental agencies such as wind, the heavy metals remain in high concentrations and continue to exert toxic effects on plants and animals including the humans who inhabit the area,? says F. Brian Pyatt of Nottingham Trent University in England.

Pyatt and his colleague J. P. Grattan researched ancient and current environmental pollution in an area called Wadi Faynan in southern Jordan. They measured current levels of copper and lead in the region where Babylonians, Assyrians, Romans and Byzantines worked large copper mines thousands of years ago.

They found that that copper and lead concentrations ?remain exceptionally high? in the area, 2,000 years later. The metals still pose a threat to the health of Bedouins currently living in the area. Toxic complications can range from nausea, diarrhea and convulsions to coma and death.

Pyatt notes that the potential health problems faced by modern Bedouins are not unique to the Middle East. ?There are many areas of the world where toxic elements are mined,? he says. Thousands of miles north, in an area of southwest England known as the Tamar Valley, mining done between 1880 and 1910 produced heavy metal byproducts that still pollute the environment today. ?Heavy metals can persist in the environment for a long time,? he says, ?And [today?s] consumers can be directly affected.?

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Dense clouds of black smoke from modern farmers are damaging priceless Egyptian antiquities, including hundreds of hieroglyphics, in the Valley of the Kings. A sticky film of black grime has settled on the monuments, making the ancient stone brittle and crumbly.

Although Egypt?s antiquities have withstood the pollution and the elements for thousands of years, this new threat may be the most serious. The smog comes from rice farmers in the Nile delta burning their chaff. Samia Galal, a special adviser to the Environment Minister, says the problem was ?worse than ever this year because there is an increased amount of water in the Nile, so the farmers have grown more rice.?

Farmers once used the rice chaff for their bedding and animal feed and as a natural fire starter. However, recent improvements in living standards mean the chaff is no longer useful, so it?s burned instead to clear the land for next season?s crop. The government is investing $3.4 million in research to discover alternative uses for the rice chaff.

?The rice burning couldn?t happen at a more destructive time of year,? says Galal. ?Now that the temperature is dropping at night, the increased amount of carbon dioxide in the air [caused by the burning] converts more readily into liquid and then into carbonic acid. This acid then reacts with calcium present in the stone of our great monuments, causing it to become fragile and then break.?

The acid in the smoke is already wearing down many of the historic inscriptions on Egyptian tombs. ?Luxor?s Valley of the Kings has been particularly badly hit, as well as sites in Sakkara and Middle Egypt, says Egyptologist Zahi Hawass. ?I?ve seen a thick coating of grime on the monuments, and it?s even present on the inside of the tombs, covering the beautiful wall paintings in a sticky black layer.? He says a yearly cleaning is no longer enough to combat the environmental damage. ?Even the Great Pyramid of Giza is developing serious cracks in its interior which could be caused by this smog.?

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