Environmental breaches could lie behind cancer increase

Enforcement of laws, good education and absence of corruption are ways to prevent an increase in cancerous pollutants that have increased Egypt’s cancer rates over recent decades.

Precise figures for cancer rates were difficult to obtain by Al-Masry Al Youm, as authorities do not release official numbers in Egypt. Efforts to contact hospitals for figures were met by much resistance. Yet, when discussing the prevalence of cancer cases in Egypt with ordinary people, or when visiting a hospital, it becomes clear that the country faces a serious problem.  

Cancer is caused by Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) which travel through the air, chemicals released in water through wastes, food contamination due to the use of pesticides on agriculture, and everyday domestic use of products such as washing detergents. The pollutants are characterized by low water solubility and high fat solubility resulting in the bio-accumulation of fatty tissues inside living organisms.

The pollutants then cause unwanted increases in cell activity that lead to cancer and other illnesses.

“All POPs that have hydro-carbons in them are dangerous. The most aggressive kinds are the aromatic kinds,” said Dr. Mahmoud Amr, professor of occupational and chest diseases and founder of the National Toxicology Center.

According to Amr, law prohibits contaminating the Nile River. However, he goes on to explain that about 28 percent of the Nile River is contaminated due to sewage or waste thrown in the water. “The problems lie in three areas: corruption within the system, lack of diligence and improper training for inspectors. This is where things go wrong,” said Amr.

An owner of a plastic factory in Alexandria, speaking to Al-Masry Al Youm on condition of anonymity, said no inspections are made to ensure his factory is up to standards. The production of plastic emits cancerous chemicals. With this in mind, the owner tries to make the workers wear protective gear, but they refuse.

Sherif Mohamed, owner of a factory in the middle of a populated area, says inspections are irregular but occur every 6 to 8 months. He is currently in the process of moving his factory to a less populated area because his machines were found to release waste into sewage system. Chemicals released in the air are also not up to standards. According to Mohamed it is too costly to be able to make the necessary upgrades to avoid these problems. When asked about possible inspections after the factory moves, he said if the factories are not located in densely populated areas, they are not inspected at all.

According to Amr, since the year 2000, all factories in Egypt became eligible for no interest loans in order to make their factories environmentally friendly.

Mohamed, whose factory has operated for over 50 years and deals with the “Industrial Modernization Center (IMC),” knows nothing of these loans.

There is a clear lack of awareness among polluting industries in the country.

According to Dr. Hussein Mansour, Chairman of Food and Safety Unit under the Ministry of Trade and Industry, “there is practically no awareness for consumers or food handlers in terms of food safety standards.”

Mohamed Medhat, a farm owner who sells fruits and vegetables for foreign and domestic consumption, said it is difficult to obtain information on how to use pesticides and when to gather crops after they have been sprayed. Only if the farmer works in exports, does he receive the guidelines, he said.

When the product is consumed earlier than directed the pesticides remain cancerous. Medhat says over 180 banned products around the world remain in ue by Egyptian farmers.

Minimum residue levels, the level at which the produce is not cancerous, differs not only with each pesticide but also from one fruit or vegetable to another.

Many farmers are illiterate and are solely concerned with turning profit, Medhat said. Consequently, they sell their produce before it is safe to consume.

Mansour, who is currently working on a food safety law, claimed that less than 1 percent of statements from the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Health address food safety. The new law aims to create a committee whose sole purpose is food safety. The committee will place responsibility on certain entities and create awareness for consumers and food handlers. The law will create principles to guarantee food safety based on science and transparency.

Environmental Law 4/1994 covers regulations pertaining to land, air and water pollution. Articles 84 to 101 of the law assign penalties that include fines, business closures, and imprisonment.

Mansour said the problem with carrying out punishments in many instances is the difficulty of applying the law when dealing with establishments. “Defining whether the food handler has committed fraud makes the law’s punitive clauses difficult to use,” he said.

Articles 102 to 104 of the Environmental Law state that “the employees of the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA), and its governorate branches, designated by a decree of the Minister of Justice in agreement with the Minister of Environmental Affairs, shall have the capacity of judicial officers vested with the power to effect seizures in proving the commission of crimes in violation of the provisions of this Law or the decrees issued in implementation thereof.”

Mansour and Amr, each working in different fields to ensure a clean environment, agree that the increase in the number of inspectors, proper training for inspectors, and general awareness could stem the use of hazardous products and allow cancer rates to decrease.

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