BEIRUT: One afternoon last June, while crossing Sassine Square, Anthony Mills spotted a truck in front of Starbucks spraying insecticides over the entire outdoor seating area. "The smoke went over their coffee cups and their muffins," Mills recalled. He also noticed that the driver of the truck was laughing in apparent amusement at the insecticide cloud which slowly enveloped the shop's patrons.
Contrary to what some may think, however, the use of insecticides is neither a joke nor a routine part of daily life to be taken lightly. Indeed, the top brands in Lebanon contain chemicals that kill or severely disorient cockroaches, ants and mosquitoes. In the end, they are all poisons that directly impact an insects' central nervous system.
"If these sprays are used in large quantities, they will affect people the same way they affect insects," said Wajdi Abi Saleh, a doctor who specializes in asthma and allergies. Dr. Abi Saleh has even seen some people who ended up in the intensive care units of hospitals because of insecticide exposure. "One girl drank one bottle of insecticide because she wanted to commit suicide," he recalled. "She almost lost her life."
His advice for dealing with insecticides: Patients suffering from asthma should avoid any kind of sprays and people should stay away from trucks spraying outdoor areas. More than this though, in his opinion, all insecticides should be used by professionals only.
Even if sprays are used in small quantities in households, some people still suffer from unpleasant side-effects. For example, one student at the American University of Beirut (AUB) who entered her room after the cleaning personnel had sprayed it for insects, said she "felt dizzy, wanted to vomit and almost fainted." Exacerbating the potential for problems, one university employee said that AUB used to spray plants on campus with insecticides without warning the campus's residents beforehand.
"The chemicals we use for spraying are used by the municipalities of big cities in Europe as well," assured Dr. Riad Abdel Karim El-Alaili, head of the Health Department of the Municipality of Beirut, who added that both home and outdoor insecticides contain pyrethroids, a highly effective chemical for combating insects. "The products are German, and we consider them safe."
Nonetheless, in European cities, inhabitants are warned by loudspeaker before a truck passes, and are advised to keep doors and windows closed for two hours after an area has been sprayed.
In Lebanon, trucks pass at any time, without previous warning - sometimes in the early hours when people are still asleep with windows wide open.
"Pyrethroids are chemicals (that cause) a rapid cellular breakdown," explained Dr. Kawar, a specialist in pesticides, from AUB. "They don't harm people." But, he added, when a truck passes by spraying insecticides, he tries not to inhale the smoke.
On the internet, though, a different picture on insecticides emerges. Sites intended for consumers list a series of side effects for certain kinds of pyrethroids, ranging from asthma attacks and allergic reactions to liver damage and cancer. Abnormal facial sensations, dizziness, headaches, vomiting and nausea are also routinely cited as additional potential side effects. One organization, Corporate Watch UK, has even raised questions over some of the same chemicals used in outdoor sprays in Lebanon, reporting that one study "showed that pregnant women who were exposed to a substance from the same family of chemicals were 10 times more likely to have a baby which developed (leukemia) than mothers who were not exposed."
Despite the questions, and in the absence of long-term studies that conclusively pin down the potential dangers, municipalities say they simply must respond to the persistent problem of insects.
"We received many complaints from the inhabitants of Ras el Nabah about mosquitoes," recalled Dr. Aleili, who noted that after several sprayings last June no further complaints from the area were registered with city officials.
AUB Agriculture specialist Dr. Nasri Kawar disputed the effectiveness of spraying altogether though, arguing that such a practice "wastes money," since some of the compounds act as repellents and don't kill the insects. "After a few hours, the mosquitoes are back," he said.
Adnan Melki, a member of the environmental organization Greenline, as well as a former member of the municipality of Kura, said there is perhaps another option in fighting insects.
"We used bacteria to control mosquitoes," he said. The bacteria are put into still water - prime breeding ground for mosquitoes - where it kills insect larvae. "This way is environmentally friendly and doesn't affect humans."
An even better strategy, he said, is to cover still water wherever possible.