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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Drinking the Poisoned Waters of Gaza

I have a friend who as an independent journalist traveled to Gaza last year. We were speaking on the phone last night and she told me about a high incident of a type of anemia in the Gaza Strip and that the necessary medications are not getting in. She knew about this because while there she visited the Ministry of Health and a hospital where she saw patients suffering from this.

The below article is a new study out by scientists who have done a study on the drinking water in Gaza writing for a specialist journal, Science of the Total Environment.

First, from the Department of Health, New South Wales:

What is methaemoglobinaemia?

Methaemoglobinaemia is a very rare blood disorder where the blood is unable to carry oxygen to cells in the body. The condition occurs when normal haemoglobin, which is found inside red blood cells, is changed to abnormal haemoglobin, called methaemoglobin.

What are the symptoms

Symptoms of methaemoglobinaemia include:

  • headache
  • weakness
  • nausea and vomiting
  • diarrhoea
  • increased heart rate
  • breathlessness
  • skin turning blue (called cyanosis)
  • loss of consciousness.

In severe cases, the disease can be fatal. Symptoms usually occur rapidly after being exposed to some toxic substances.

What causes methaemoglobinaemia?

Methaemoglobinaemia is caused when a person is exposed to some poisons, including some types of drugs. Chemicals called nitrites have been known to cause methaemoglobinaemia after consumption. Rarely, some people have a genetic defect that causes the disease.

How is it diagnosed?

A person suffering methaemoglobinaemia is often very unwell. A blood test is needed to confirm the diagnosis. It is important that this condition is diagnosed early and treated promptly.

How is it treated?

Methaemoglobinaemia is treated using oxygen therapy and an antidote called methylene blue. People suffering with methaemoglobinaemia can make a full recovery with prompt treatment. (but Gaza doesn't have the supplies of oxygen they need)

What can be done to avoid methaemoglobinaemia?

Outbreaks of methaemoglobinaemia have occurred when people have eaten food that has been contaminated with high levels of nitrites. People should not add any chemicals to food if they are uncertain of the ingredients. (source)


Drinking Water In Gaza Strip Contaminated With High Levels Of Nitrate

ScienceDaily (Aug. 14, 2008) — Palestinian and German scientists have recommended to the authorities in the Gaza Strip that they take immediate measures to combat excessive nitrate levels in the drinking water.

90 per cent of their water samples were found to contain nitrate concentrations that were between two and eight times higher than the limit recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO), say the researchers from the University of Heidelberg and the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) writing in the specialist journal Science of the Total Environment.

Over the long term they recommend that the best protection would be provided by quality management for groundwater resources. Groundwater is the only source of drinking water for the majority of people living in the Gaza Strip. In babies younger than six months, nitrate can lead to methaemoglobinaemia, to diarrhoea and to acidosis. The WHO therefore recommends keeping nitrate levels to 50 milligrams per litre or less.

According to unpublished research, half of the 640 infants tested were already showing signs of methaemoglobinaemia. The new Palestinian-German study confirms earlier water analyses and is the first study to pinpoint a source of the contamination. With the help of isotope analyses, the researchers were able to demonstrate that the nitrate pollution can be traced back to manure used in farming and to wastewater.

With over 2600 people per square kilometre, the Gaza Strip is one of the most densely populated areas on earth. Because of their isolation, the inhabitants of this area between the Mediterranean, Egypt and Israel are reliant on being self-sufficient. The fields are mostly fertilized with chicken and cow dung. Artificial fertilizers account for only around a quarter of the fertilizer used.

Because of the area’s geology and the semi-arid climate, it is fairly easy for impurities to seep down from the surface into the aquifier system. Organic fertilizers and wastewater are the main causes of the nitrate contamination in the groundwater, followed by sewage sludge and artificial fertilizers.

This was revealed by the isotope ratios of nitrogen (15N/14N) and oxygen (18O/16O) in the nitrate. Isotopes are variations of the same chemical element that have a different number of neutrons in their nuclei. 18O and 15N are stable, i.e. non-radioactive, isotopes that are heavier than "normal" oxygen (16O) or nitrogen (14N) and can therefore be measured using a mass spectrometer.

"The lower 15N nitrogen isotope values in the sewage sludge indicate that the nitrate in the Gaza groundwater comes primarily from manure used as fertilizer," explains Dr Karsten Osenbrück of the UFZ. Between 2001 and 2007 the scientists took water samples from 115 municipal wells and 50 private wells on seven occasions. They measured nitrate concentrations of between 31 and 452 milligrams per litre. Only 10 of the 115 municipal wells examined were found to have a nitrate level below the WHO guideline value. The situation with the private wells was equally serious: apart from three, all the wells were found to have nitrate levels that were between five and seven times higher than the WHO recommendations. (source)

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