After the earthquakes originating in Kahramanmaraş deeply affected our country, the TEMA Foundation, which operates in Hatay, shared striking results with the public on the first anniversary of the earthquakes. According to the results, in Hatay, where debris removal efforts took place after the earthquake, samples from soil and water resources revealed the presence of asbestos, heavy metals, and bacteriological contamination posing risks of serious public health issues such as epidemic diseases and cancer.
The TEMA Foundation initiated a study in Hatay, one of the cities most affected by the destruction, to assess the pollution caused by debris waste on soil and water, following the earthquakes that occurred on February 6 in Kahramanmaraş and caused destruction and numerous casualties in 11 provinces. Within the scope of the study, soil and water samples were collected during visits to Hatay in June, September, and December of 2023, and analyses were conducted for asbestos, heavy metals, and bacteriological contamination.
Asbestos, heavy metals, and bacteriological contamination were identified
Providing information about the study, TEMA Foundation Chairman of the Board Deniz Ataç stated, “In 5 out of 7 samples taken from debris waste thought to be randomly dumped in various points in Hatay and from soil in nearby fields, asbestos was detected. Additionally, 2 out of 3 samples taken from the Mileyha Bird Sanctuary Wetland Area near the Samandağ seaside and the well water in Antakya Serinyol also showed the presence of asbestos. Bacteriological growth was detected in 3 water samples taken from Güneysöğüt, Samandağ, and Serinyol, indicating the possibility of sewage water contamination. This situation could lead to poisoning and epidemic diseases. Furthermore, in water samples taken near Defne and Samandağ Mileyha Bird Sanctuary, some heavy metal concentrations were found to exceed the limit values defined by the Regulation on Waters Intended for Human Consumption. Therefore, we are concerned about public health,” he said.
Asbestos and heavy metals can lead to serious diseases
Deniz Ataç reminded that asbestos is listed as one of the most significant causes of cancer by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). He stated, “The high amount of asbestos fibers released into the air during and after the earthquake poses a serious danger to public health. Unfortunately, previous measurements by some non-governmental organizations revealed asbestos levels in the air significantly above the limit values. It is known that asbestos, especially when inhaled into the human body through the respiratory system, causes serious diseases such as lung fibrosis, lung, and throat cancer. Although there is no conclusive result on whether it causes cancer when ingested through the digestive system, there are studies suggesting its potential to induce cancer,” he said.
Ataç emphasized that asbestos is not the only factor threatening public health in Hatay, mentioning toxic gases released into the air from rubble piles, inorganic and chemical wastes in dust, and microbiological wastes mixing with water. He drew attention to heavy metals, stating that when some heavy metals accumulate in water and soil, they can lead to health problems such as neurological damage, kidney failure, and cancer.
Agricultural productivity in Hatay may decrease by 30%
Drawing attention to the danger posed to agricultural productivity, Ataç said, “Dumping debris waste near agricultural lands and the mixing of various pollutants in it with the soil, along with asbestos and dust accumulating on plants, hindering photosynthesis, will negatively affect soil and agricultural productivity. In addition to asbestos and dust, various chemicals in debris waste also pose a risk to soil organisms, soil quality, and productivity. Therefore, scientists expect a decrease of approximately 30% in agricultural yield.” Ataç also highlighted the possibility of these chemicals reaching drinking water and tables through the food chain.
Protecting the Amik Plain, olive groves, and the Mileyha Bird Sanctuary is crucial
Stressing that pollution in Hatay not only threatens human health but also has broader implications, Ataç said, “The Amik Plain, which has highly fertile soils thanks to the alluviums carried by the Orontes River and spreads over approximately 105 thousand hectares, has been affected by soil and water pollution due to irregular waste disposal after the earthquake. Olive groves near forested areas, wetlands, agricultural lands, and meadows, as well as valleys and streambeds nourished by the river system, are also affected by pollution. The region near the Mileyha Bird Sanctuary, which hosts 283 out of 500 different bird species, 231 plant species, 24 butterflies, 3 frogs, and 12 reptile species, and 6 mammal species in Turkey, has been turned into a debris dumping area. Hundreds of birds come here to rest, feed, and breed in every season. Urgent measures should be taken to prevent the destruction of this area, which gained official status in 2021, important for the natural life and biodiversity of the region.”
Don’t let earthquakes lead to secondary disasters!
Reminding that Turkey is an earthquake-prone country, Deniz Ataç emphasized the importance of post-disaster management in preventing earthquakes from causing secondary disasters. Therefore, he stressed the urgent need for provincial disaster waste plans to be prepared.
Ataç said, “Of course, the most significant measure that can be taken against earthquakes is the construction of buildings suitable for the ground and resistant to earthquakes, as well as strengthening the existing building stock. This way, it will be possible to reduce the numbers of the tragic losses we have experienced so far. To prevent the environmental and health damage caused by millions of tons of debris waste after an earthquake, it is necessary to prepare and implement not only provincial disaster management plans but also provincial disaster waste plans, sharing them with the public. In these plans, strict rules should be established regarding where debris waste will not be dumped, in order to protect our important natural assets such as forests, wetlands, agricultural lands, and meadows.”
On the anniversary of the earthquakes on February 6, Ataç once again expressed condolences and wishes for recovery to the families of the citizens who lost their lives, to everyone affected by the earthquake, and to the entire country.