Public Health at risk due to toxic substances

By Harem Karem:

KT Exclusive

Today in Iraq, as result of oil extracting, 700 million cubic feet of gas is burnt each day without being put to good use. Recently Shell has entered into an agreement with the Iraqi government to trap the gas and use it either for domestic consumption or export. This project, however, is likely to take up to two more years before it’s complete.

It’s a different story for the Kurdistan region. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has so far signed 52 oil concessions with 34 companies from 19 countries.  Some are for exploration and the rest for extraction. It’s a well-established fact that, wherever there is oil, there are environmental issues. One of the key conditions for each oil concession is preserving and protecting the environment. In addition, locals are meant to be compensated and provided with good public services such as good roads, access to clean water, education and health centres.

Whenever oil is extracted, it inevitably involves gas and, for each barrel of oil, there are 800 cubic feet of mixture of gas such as methane (CH4) – often used for power plants; ethane (C2H6) – often used for petrochemical such as fertilizer, medicine, plastic, polyester polyfiber; propane (C3H8) and butane (C4H10), which are usually called cooking gas.

There is also the poisonous Hydrogen-Sulphide (H2S): this is by far one of the most vicious and deadly hazards in the oil and gas industry. During the production, it has to be carefully separated from the rest – using special equipment – not letting it burn or be released into the air. H2S is currently causing environmental issues in the Kurdistan region on an epic scale. It’s a fast-growing out of control problem with potentially dire consequences – posing a high risk to the public health.

Although the immediate risks posed by H2S in the Kurdistan region are to local residents and passers-by of the oil fields, rather than the general population, wider public health is ultimately at risk.  Humans and animals can be exposed to H2S through different means, such as inhalation, food contamination, and/or via skin contact. When humans are exposed to hydrogen sulphide, there are a number of factors that would determine how substantial the health risk is. i.e.: the quantity, duration and the way in which you are exposed to it. Additional factors, such as other chemicals you have already been exposed to as well as your age, sex, diet, family traits, lifestyle and state of health could also make a substantial difference. One of the recent cases in the Kurdistan region is the Kurdamir oilfield, where locals were forced to evacuate until the company, Western-Zagros, put the situation under control.

H2S is a poisonous, flammable, colourless gas that is heavier than air and has a characteristic odour of rotten eggs – this smell is easily noticed by many with a sensitive nose like me when driving on the roads between the cities of Kirkuk and Hawler. Humans can usually smell hydrogen sulphide at low concentrations in the air, ranging from 0.0005 to 0.3 parts per million (ppm) (0.0005– 0.3 parts of hydrogen sulphide in 1 million parts of air); however, at high concentrations, a person might lose their ability to smell it. H2S gas quickly deadens the sense of smell and therefore the best way of detecting it is by employing professional high-tech detectors. This can make hydrogen sulphide very dangerous.

To put it in context, you can smell H2S at low concentration for up to 15 minutes and only a few seconds at high concentration: after that, it is breathed in-and-out without noticing and this is where the risk dangerously accelerates until it reaches lethal quantities and you lose consciousness. [1]

When an oil product placed is in a metal container that contains H2S, the H2S destroys the metal by eating away its particles. When human beings inhale it, it destroys their respiratory system and lungs.

Dr Bayazeed Hassan

Dr Bayazeed Hassan

In an interview, Dr Bayazeed Hassan, MP and member of natural resources committee in the Iraqi parliament, told the Kurdistan Tribune (KT): “Because the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is the owner of the resources and lands, it has the immediate responsibility to ensure that these oilfields are managed properly and the companies uphold their agreements. It seems that the KRG is not taking this matter seriously and the companies are focusing on profits rather than keeping the local environment clean.”

Dr Hassan added: “This isn’t only a local issue; the whole world suffers from such contamination. The KRG must strengthen its conditions when it comes to environmental issues and protect the people of Kurdistan from disease.”

KT understands that some of the oil companies operating locally have taken precautionary measures as far as their staff are concerned by equipping them with high-tech detectors, numerous wind direction indicators, blowers, designated safe briefing areas with self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA’s), and emergency escape breathing units. However, they have not demonstrated a sense of responsibility or moral obligation towards the indigenous population not to contaminate their environment. The KRG also seems to be doing very little to protect its citizens – it is failing to carry out regular inspections.

Associate professor Dr Sleman Ja’far at the University of Salahadin has recently warned the public of risks they are exposed to and threatened to file a lawsuit against the prime minister and the natural resources minster for their incompetence and lack responsibility towards the public health.

KT has also learned that there are currently numerous open-reservoirs in the Kurdistan region that are fully operational but lack proper health and safety checks – they are continually filled with crude before it is transported to refineries for separation. This may serve the interests of unethical smugglers and fill a few pockets on the side but, the risks it poses to the public health are considerable.


Bahman Tofiq

Chemical engineer and environmentalist, Bahman Tofiq, claims that most of the oil companies operating in the Kurdistan region have failed to put in place necessary measures to ensure that H2S will not contaminate the air.

Bahman Tofiq told KT: “H2S is one of the most hazardous gases we have dealt with: it can potentially kill a human being after eight hours of exposure. At the beginning, if your exposure to H2S is at 10 parts per million, your eyes will be sore; when it reaches 15 parts per million, it deadens your sense of smell and start infecting your lungs; when it reaches 100 parts per million, it’ll affect your entire abdominal area; and, finally, at 400 parts per million it’ll kill you.”

“Normally, this environmental issue should be taken very seriously as part of the concessions, but lack of transparency by the KRG and natural resources ministry has overshadowed this issue. It’s the job of the KRG to put together teams of experts to carry out regular checks.”

Bahman Tofiq continued: “I believe the short-term solution would be for the natural resources ministry to establish well-equipped laboratories and send out teams of experts to carry out regular checks and bring back samples – aimed at controlling H2S.”

KT understands that there is currently no adequate and valid law in the Kurdistan region to regulate how many parts per million a manufacturer or oil company is allowed to contaminate the environment.

Despite enjoying a lucrative sum of money, good property and latest cars at the expenses of the public, members of the Kurdistan parliament have so far been ignorant towards the environmental issues and failed to produce necessary laws to protect public health. Even the local environmental organisations such as Green Kurdistan and local Environment Agency that exist in every city have, to a large degree, failed to follow up important issues such as this and lobby the MPs and the natural resources minister to introduce necessary measures in order to ensure that public health is not put at risk.

KT tried to use formal channels to contact the natural resources minister, Dr Ashty Hawramy, or indeed his spokesman – if there is any – but his mysterious ministry is often referred to as ‘the suitcase ministry’ that has no websites or official contact details and he was not reachable. Instead, KT contacted former deputy natural resources minister Hama-Jaza Hama-Salih and asked him whether or not, during the time he was in office (November 2012 – April 2013), the ministry had inspection teams to follow up environmental issues caused by the oil companies. He responded: “As stated in my memoir, I was being kept in the dark and was not formally given any details of what really was going on in the ministry. But what I can say is that Dr Halo Askary, whose Ph.D. is on the environment, was transferred to the natural resources ministry during late 2012 aimed at establishing a department to follow up this issue which I supported.”

“I’m not formally aware of previous attempts to put in place these measures, not before Dr Askary.”

The former Deputy NRM Minister – who has a rich background in petroleum engineering – also confirmed that the smell of rotten eggs on the main roads between Kerkuk and Hawler is indeed a clear sign that these companies carelessly releasing the H2S into the air.

“In reality, using special equipment to control the H2S requires large financial support; the smugglers dealing with the Kurdistan oil industry would rather spend the minimum amount of money to make the maximum amount of profit,” said Mr Hama-Salih.

“In fact, the only oilfield in the Kurdistan region that is currently trapping H2S properly – using special equipment – is the Baba-gurgur field in Kerkuk. What we have in the Kurdistan region are not really refineries, they are rather large cooking pots used to produce low quality petrol and other oil products.”

Ararat Zardashty

Ararat Zardashty

Ararat Zardashty, acting president of Green Kurdistan Association (GKA) told KT: “Environmental issues in this region began back in 1991 and that’s when our organisation was established. But with the recent developments, it has increased drastically. H2S also harms the local agriculture and destroys wildlife. The Bazyan refinery has been set up on a large quantity of groundwater that has been there for nearly ten thousand years. To put it in context, if this amount of water is consumed by the Suli population, it’ll last 550 years. Unfortunately, this refinery isn’t only releasing H2S into the air, it also contaminates this underground water too and, when this water contaminated, we’re like bankrupts – all our savings no-longer usable.”

Mr Zardashty added: “We have conducted a research ‘environment impact assessment’ for Bazyan in Suli, Astel in Qaradakh on Dewana section, as well as for Germyan on Awaspy oilfields and informed them of our findings and how it could be environmentally disastrous, but we are not being listened to.”

Oil isn’t everything, said Mr Zardashty. “We must concentrate on agriculture and clean environment as we ultimately will have to use more than the oil revenues to pay for an effective health system in which the local population are treated for being exposed to risks. We believe prevention is better than treatment.”

“It’s our understanding that the Dukan and Derbandikhan lakes are currently contaminated. The clock is ticking to stop these oilfields from causing greater environmental issues once and for all. If it gets any worse, it’ll take more than this generation and oil revenue to clean it up.”

“Our organisation prepared a draft law in 2001 and presented to Kurdistan parliament. This draft law was assessed and over eighty per cent of it was approved and ratified in 2008 – called law number (8) of 2008 to protect the environment. I trust this law still exists on paper only and is not practiced. Our organisations should be involved in these oil concessions in order to carry out our work independently. We do not require financial supports, we are not affiliated with any other organisation and we are all volunteers. If the natural resources ministry allows us, we will set up inspection teams and follow up this matter.”

“We have set up similar a team of experts previously in cooperation with local universities at the local level, but the natural resources ministry do not currently allow external organisations to be involved in their work. What the ministry is doing is pure incompetence and irresponsibility.”

“We hope the responsible parties are listening to us. It’s not our concern who is in power or how much money they are making; our only concern is our environment.”

KT understands that the natural resources ministry is receiving deposits, when signing each concession, specifically for environmental clean-up. However, so far there is no sign of the ministry spending these deposits as needed.

The implications of today’s irresponsibility for ten years time are not yet known, but the rising number of strange and previously-unknown illnesses in Kurdistan’s hospitals over the past five years is clearly abnormal and it has taken health professionals by surprise.

[1] Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry

Copyright © 2013

3 Responses to Public Health at risk due to toxic substances
  1. Haval
    June 27, 2013 | 19:12

    Thank you for well written report and article on the environmental issues related to oil in Kurdistan.

  2. goran abdulqadir
    June 28, 2013 | 05:54

    دةستان خوشبيت بوئه و رابورته به راستى مه ترسيه كى زور كه وره يه ئه كه ربه دواداجونى بونه كريت ئه وغازى H2S واته كبريتيدى هايدروجين حه ق وايه ئه ندام به رله مانه كانى كوردستانى لى ئاكاداربكريته وه بوئه وهى به دواداجونى بوبكريت له لايه ن دةزكابه يوه نديداره كانه وه

  3. Halmet
    June 29, 2013 | 15:02

    Very good article and thank you for bringing this issue to the public attention.
    I have personally witnessed this rotten smell in Pirde area. It’s a disgusting smell. The fact that those so called small “refineries” are owned by local KDP affiliated members “Masouls” in Hawler – Kirkuk area. To name a few, one of the owners is Sherwani Simko Ali, who used to be a KDP fighter and fought hard during KDP/PUK war in the nineties. I don’t think KDP will ever pressure such person to comply with the rule of law. In other words, I believe, as long as current KDP/PUK so called government in place, those refineries will continue poison the public without any hesitant.

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