Gaza Strip in grip of a 'battery-powered' health crisis – TRT World

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Zachariah Abu Sultan, 27, rides his horse-drawn wagon around the Beit Lahia neighbourhood in the northern Gaza Strip from sunrise to sunset, publicly asking over a speaker if anyone has any old or damaged batteries for sale. 
It’s a routine he has followed almost since 2007, when Israel banned export of old batteries from the Palestinian territory, citing security reasons. A year later, Israeli jets bombed and crippled the only power plant in the Gaza Strip.
Since then, batteries have powered the lives of Gaza residents — from their light bulbs to their internet routers to anything else needing electricity to run. Power cuts are frequent and lengthy. 
But this acute dependence on batteries has also sparked another problem in the Gaza Strip — a health crisis due to their unscientific and haphazard disposal by scrap dealers who cut open these power units for iron, lead, plastic etc.
People like Abu Sultan are aware of the health risks but have no choice—they buy these old batteries from individuals and sell them to scrap dealers as they try to eke out a living in a region where the unemployment rate stood at 43 percent at the end of last year.
Abu Sultan explains that he pays $15 for a 200-ampere battery and sells it for $18.
"I purchased three batteries today and sold them for $54 to a scrap dealer. I could make $9 off of them," he says. "I spent this money on bread and two lunch dinners for my family."
According to the Gaza Environment Quality Authority, an estimated 25,000 old batteries have piled up in various landfills for scrap dealers, far away from the residential areas.,
The batteries are recycled in about 50 workshops where three to six people aged between 16 and 50 work in hazardous conditions for long hours.
 In the absence of minimum occupational safety procedures due to a lack of required devices in their small workshops, 23 percent of the scrap dealers have been diagnosed with lead poisoning and chronic diseases in recent years.  
Dr. Mazen Zaqout, an official of the Gaza Ministry of Health, points out that lead is the second most dangerous among the 20 heavy metals listed by the World Health Organization (WHO) as harmful to individuals and the environment. 
The lead enters an individual's bloodstream through inhalation of the emitting gases or through the mouth during the smelting process of lead panels, increasing the metal’s levels in the blood and causing chronic diseases, primarily in the kidney, the central nervous system, heart and lungs, he adds.
Healthcare facilities are rudimentary in the Gaza Strip, home to an estimated 2.3 million Palestinians, which means that people diagnosed with serious ailments rarely get proper treatment.
No other choice 
Abu Awni Alouni, 56, has been recycling batteries for over 12 years in his small workshop under his house. 
"Because the smelting process requires a high temperature, I have to close the windows and doors of my workshop to keep it warm," he explains, adding that he is forced to inhale the toxic gases produced during the recycling process.
A few years ago, Alouni had severe abdominal pain, headaches, bone pain and general weakness, prompting him to seek medical attention. He discovered that he had lead poisoning and a lumbar disc problem as a result of his demanding job.
"I had a medical lead test, and the levels of lead in my body had risen three times the permitted percentage," he explains.
"These high levels rendered me unable to control my nerves, and the damage to my nervous system resulted in bone and joint weakness," he adds. 
But Alouni was not the only one affected.  His nine-year-old son was also partially paralysed as a result of lead poisoning.
"At the time, I thought I'd be the only one who could be harmed by this work," he says. But Alouni says he has to continue working. “I'd rather die of these gases while providing the necessities for my children than let them starve to death."
Forced to stop work 
But many have been forced to stop working after being diagnosed with serious diseases.
Mahmoud al-Helou discovered he had kidney failure two years after being diagnosed with lead poisoning, rendering him to quit work in the battery recycling industry. 
Al-Helou has to undergo dialysis up to three times a week, which exhausts his body and leaves him in constant need of staying indoors.
"Dialysis takes almost four hours and causes nausea, vomiting, exhaustion, and bone pain," he explains. "I suffer from anaemia and other symptoms when I have dialysis once a week because of a lack of medications and medical instruments in Gazan hospitals."
Al-Helou started working in this field ten years ago because he had no other way to support his seven-member family. 
He knew it was a “dangerous job for my health" but took it anyway. . "I didn't care because my thoughts were on how to provide for the necessities of my family."
As a result, al-Helou ignored his doctor's advice to stop working and look for another job because his lead level had been rising for a few years before he realised he had kidney failure.
“Recycling batteries enabled me to support my family. I was selling each battery for between $120 and $180, depending on capacity," he says. "It doesn't matter if it cost me my life," he adds, sounding almost fatalistic at the turn of events.
Pregnant women and children at risk 
Recycling batteries impacts not only employees' health but also people around them, including their pregnant wives and newborns. 
According to Dr. Zaqout, increased lead exposure has resulted in many pregnant mothers having miscarriages or losing children after birth. Many newborns in the area have developed congenital defects and mental retardation in recent years.
According to a case study conducted three years ago by Dr. Jamal Safi, an Environmental Science professor at one of Gaza's universities, 1,230 out of 1,500 children who underwent a lead test in one of Gaza's hospitals, were diagnosed with lead poisoning.
Om Ahmed Olwan, 45, was devastated when his children were diagnosed with lead poisoning after delivery, thinking it would have a long-term impact on their health. On the other hand, her younger child had delayed brain growth and neurodevelopmental difficulties, which she recognised during his first year. 
"I was worried about my son when he turned two and didn't start walking like other babies of his age," she says. "I went to the doctor to get him checked out, and that's when I got my huge shock."
"I realised my son was crippled owing to excessive levels of lead in his bones and joints, preventing him from crawling, moving, or walking well," she explains.
She says her neighbour, who didn’t follow the doctor’s advice, lost three infants, all of whom were born with congenital defects and mental retardation.
"I don't blame our spouses for what's happened to us since they've still put their lives on the line to feed their children," she continues. 
“The Israeli occupation is the only thing to blame. They banned export of used batteries from Gaza for recycling , depriving us of our source of income and forcing our people  to recycle those batteries in harsh conditions."
Khuloud Rabah Sulaiman is a Gaza-based freelance journalist. She has contributed to several international news outlets, including Al Jazeera English, the Electronic Intifada, and the New Arab.
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Copyright © 2022 TRT World.
Copyright © 2022 TRT World.

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