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Toxic smoke from oil fires a health and environmental threat

Toxic smoke from burning oil wells in southern Iraq and from oil-filled trenches and bomb-ignited fires in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, poses risks for human health and the environment, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) reported on Sunday. Speaking at news briefing in the Jordanian capital, Amman, UNEP spokesman Michael Williams warned that smoke from oil fires contained contaminants such as sulphur, mercury, dioxins and furans. Asked if UNEP had any specific evidence regarding effects on human health recorded thus far, Williams told IRIN that there was “very little information coming out of Iraq at the moment”. He reported that satellite images revealed that smoke plumes from the Rumailah oil fields near Basra had weakened in recent days, but continued to threaten inhabited areas with smog. “Fortunately, only three of the seven oil wells originally set on fire are still burning,” Williams said. In addition to the smoke, UNEP warned of an increase in plankton productivity in the Shatt-Al-Arab estuary and surrounding waters that may be due to the larger quantities of nutrients draining into the Gulf as part of raw sewage from Basra through canals and various waterways. The agency reported that the unusually large number of ships in the region was likely to further contribute to the phytoplankton blooms. It noted that in the past, increased plankton productivity in shallow waters such as the Kuwait Bay had led to widespread depletion of fish stocks. “Other potential risks that typically need to be monitored during conflict include the possible destruction of petrochemical plants and factories and storage facilities of industries that employ hazardous chemicals and generate toxic wastes,” Williams stated, adding that this could include the foam, fertilizer, paper and pharmaceutical industries. In the UN appeal for humanitarian assistance for Iraq launched on Friday, UNEP requested US $500,000 to the monitor environmental impact of the conflict through satellite imagery, and field-based assessments when security conditions permit.
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