I can’t part with the oxygen machine. It keeps me alive and helps me sleep at night because of my poor breathing
Two years ago, 43-year old Ahmad underwent a medical examination. Doctors told him that he was suffering from pulmonary fibrosis of the right lung and that he needed artificial respiratory doses of oxygen on a daily basis.
Ahmad visited doctors for two years in the hopes of recovering... but to no avail. The disease settled into his body, and he could no longer visit the doctor or a hospital for oxygen doses that would keep him alive without feeling immense pain.
Ahmad lives in Kom Ombo, 1km away from the Egyptian Sugar and Integrated Industries Company factory. The air is polluted with harmful plant emissions of carbon monoxide. Bahi El-Din’s doctors explained to him that his pulmonary fibrosis and the deterioration of his health were mainly caused by these emissions.
This investigation reveals that the fumes of the Egyptian Sugar and Integrated Industries Company affiliated with the Ministry of Supply pollute the city of Kom Ombo.
These fumes increase carbon monoxide emissions above permissible limits, which coincides with increased rates of chronic lung and respiratory diseases among the residents and workers. At the same time, the Ministry of Environment in Aswan is failing to commit the factory to take the necessary measures for protection, and failing that, shut it down, as mandated in Article 22 of Law No. 4 of 1994 and its amendments.
Ahmad Bahi El-Din explains that when his treatment plan failed, doctors advised him to move away from the sugar factory to a place with fresher air, but he could not afford the move.
According to the Egyptian Society of Chest Diseases and Tuberculosis, 9 million people in Egypt have hypersensitivity pneumonitis (an immune system disorder in which your lungs become inflamed as an allergic reaction to inhaled microorganisms, plant and animal proteins or chemicals), asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), due to smoking, exposure to car exhausts, sitting in front of furnaces or inhaling volatile substances.
Lung hospital data released by Kom Ombo, indicates that the number of patients registered for treatment in 2019 reached 1,113. These include 180 cases of COPD, 74 cases of pulmonary fibrosis, and 721 patients with bronchitis. Edfou hospital is 50km away from the city of Kom Ombo, and in 2019, the hospital saw 917 cases of lung diseases. Dr. Nasser Abu-Ghanim, the hospital’s director, explains that these included 30 people with pulmonary obstruction, 13 cases of pulmonary fibrosis and 311 patients with bronchitis.
Mohammad Husni is an obstetrician-gynecologist at Aswan General Hospital. In a 2013 study conducted on 600 women, he demonstrated the consequences of the exposure of pregnant women to air polluted by the sugar factory. He also showed that women living in Kom Ombo are more prone to lung diseases than those who live 40km away from the city. Such diseases include acute respiratory diseases, preeclampsia, early childbirth, birth defects and fetal death.
In an interview Husni elaborates that the gases emitted from the sugar factory are carbon monoxide and sulfur oxide, and that their impact was evident in pregnant women and fetuses.
Kom Ombo is located in the Aswan Governorate, 1,200km from Cairo. Its population is about 400,000, according to the statistics of the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics in 2019.
Dr. Al-Shahat Hassan, Assistant Professor of Chemistry at the National Research Center, in a study entitled “Chemical Pollutants and Their Impact on Health and the Environment,” highlights that air pollutants travel long distances. His study detailed how clouds can travel up to 1,000-1,500km from the sources of industrial pollution.
Former director of Kom Ombo Lung Hospital, Dr. Jamal Orabi, confirms that the citizens who live in the vicinity of the Sugar and Integrated Industries Company are highly afflicted with respiratory diseases.
During Orabi’s work in the hospital, he signed off on medical examinations for patients suffering as a result of breathing air mixed with fumes from the factory. He pointed out that the late detection of respiratory disease makes it difficult to treat because it turns into pulmonary fibrosis that affects the gas exchange section in the lungs, which remains with the patient until he dies.
On April 16, 2019, the Environmental Affairs Agency in the southern branch of the Sai’d region carried out an environmental inspection on the sugar factory. The report proved that carbon monoxide emissions reached 3111mg/m3, thereby exceeding the allowed limit of 250 mg/m3.
The rate of inhaled dust reached 5.8 mg/m3 exceeding the permissible 3 mg/m3. These figures violate the Article 36 of the Regulations of the Environmental Law No. 4 of 1994 and its amendments.
Director General of the Environmental Affairs Agency in Aswan, Mamdouh Al-Sayyid, says he gave the factory 60 days to deal with the violations as per the provisions of the law. After that, he referred the whole factory file to Public Prosecution for investigation.
The Minister of Supply said they needed two months to rectify the conditions at the sugar factory.
Last February, Aswan’s Governor Ashraf Attia told ARIJ over the phone that “the Minister of Supply asked for two months to rectify the conditions at the sugar factory.”
He also asked the Minister of Supply to convert the factory operation of burning sugar cane reeds to operating on natural gas to remove emissions harmful to health and the environment.
The Governor justified the reluctance to close the factory by saying that doing so would “affect Egypt’s sugar stock.”
The sugar plant is hesitant to operate its production lines with natural gas because doing so would increase production costs. The cost of one million thermal units of natural gas for factory use ranges from $5.5 to $6, depending on the type of the plant. This is 50% more expensive compared to other fuels such as coal, diesel, rice straw and sugarcane reeds post-juicing, according to data released by the Egyptian Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources.
Director of the sugar company’s factory, Hashim Mohammad, acknowledges that the factory’s production lines rely on the burning of cane reed after juicing it to provide the energy needed. He says that this reduces the consumption of electricity when compared to regular systems or to the use of gas.
He added that the plant is not currently equipped to convert production lines to work on natural gas.
The factory produces 200,000 tonnes of sugar annually from the juice of 2 million tonnes of sugarcane. According to Hashim, 2,000 people work in the plant, 24 hours a day, adding that the factory provides filters for the disposal of steam and fumes and that these operate efficiently throughout the year. He describes the residents’ complaints as “malicious.”
Hashim is also demanding that affected workers residing on the factory premises move outside the borders of the factory. He believes that the violations registered by the Ministry of the Environment only represent the Ministry’s perspective.
Mohammad Abdel Halim is the head of the State Sugar Company with which the Kom Ombo sugar factory is affiliated. In his response to the investigator, he asserts that the plant does not emit carbon monoxide and that what comes out is carbon dioxide which is absorbed by plants. He also questioned the pathological cases that arise in the vicinity of the factory.
The tragedy of Ahmad Bahi El-Din is similar to nine other cases that were monitored by the investigation. One of these cases is that of the ear, nose and throat (ENT) doctor Abdel Moni’m Mahmoud who was delegated by the Alexandria Governorate to work in Kom Ombo Hospital in the Aswan Governorate in 1994.
In 2011, Mahmoud was living in a house 2km away from the sugar factory when he started to feel symptoms of his disease. Mahmoud experienced shortness of breath, difficulty in sleeping and in mobility.
“Doctors diagnosed my condition as a lung allergy as a result of inhaling air mixed with fumes,” he told ARIJ.
Mahmoud’s illness worsened, and it gradually turned into pulmonary fibrosis. This forced him to leave his residence in Kom Ombo. In 2014, he responded to his doctors’ advice to stay away from the source of the pollution and moved 50km from away from the city.
Walid Salah, Assistant Professor in the Department of Industrial Medicine at Ain Shams University’s Faculty of Medicine, confirms that increased concentration of carbon monoxide in the air beyond the permissible limits directly affects the bronchi of workers inside the factory and those of the surrounding population.
Salah explains that the high levels of carbon monoxide emissions are due to the incomplete burning process of fuel in the production lines. He advises workers inside the factory to wear protective clothing to reduce the high rates of exposure to lung diseases.
The investigator documented the failure of the sugar factory’s management to provide workers with protective clothing and tools to counter emissions and harmful dust. The workers refused to talk about their health status, for fear of being fired.
Fathia Hamed, a pseudonym for the wife of one of the workers, agreed to talk to us to narrate the story of her suffering. She explains that she moved to live with her husband in the designated workers' accommodations on the factory premises 11 years ago.
“They keep me in the lung hospital in Kom Ombo for four days, and I have to stay on the ventilator. I do this every 15 days,” she told ARIJ.
Hamed, who is 50 years old, is seeking to find a cure for her case of pulmonary fibrosis, but her efforts have not been fruitful and there is no improvement in her condition.
I am 37 years old. I can't move, and I can barely breathe,
Aziza says with difficulty. She adds that only two years earlier she was working in a tailor and sewing shop in Al-Qasriya, which is 100 metres away from the sugar factory.
Doctors told her that she has fibrosis in the lungs and must undergo artificial ventilation doses for 15 days every month in order to be able to inhale, exhale and remain alive.
For 45-year-old Nabil Labib, doctors refused to remove his gallbladder after they found out that he was suffering from severe pulmonary fibrosis. Surgery poses a threat to his life, so Nabil now has to continue living with two diseases.
Nabil lives with his wife and four children in an apartment in the tribal area of Al-Islah, 300 meters away from the sugar factory. His illness forced him to stop working more than three years ago.
The investigator met with five people who suffer from pulmonary fibrosis: Mahasin Yousef, Sayyidah Ibrahim, Maryam Lama'i, Amer Hassan and Muhammad Abdullah.
Along with hundreds of patients and thousands of residents, they wait for change, including the installation of filters that should reduce emissions that are harmful to the environment and to the health of the population, or to have the operation of the factory converted to natural gas.
General Director of Legal Affairs at the Egyptian Sugar and Integrated Industries Company, Ahmad Bayoumi, held patients responsible for their illness and said that the factory was established in 1912 before any residents were present at the place.
He says that the residents were the ones who crawled close to the factory by building in its vicinity. Therefore, the factory should not be held responsible for the consequences they are enduring.
Contrary to Bayoumi’s statement, Ahmad Abdel Wahab, head of the district, asserts that the city was established in 1902; 10 years before the construction of the sugar factory.
After the deadline given by the Governor of Aswan to the Minister of Supply to rectify the conditions of the factory had passed, Governor Attia stated in a written response that he is coordinating with Dr. Ali Al-Museilhi, the Minister of Supply to implement a number of measures to amend the environmental conditions of the Kom Ombo sugar factories. At the top of the list is the elimination of the black cloud resulting from factory emissions. He pointed out that the governorate will follow up on delivering natural gas to the sugar factories and will prevent the use of diesel to provide a clean and healthy environment.
The sugar factories will stop operating from mid-May until the first of next December as the sugarcane harvest season ends. The Governor noted that this period would be used to raise the efficiency of boilers and filters in the sugar factories while following up on periodic maintenance. This is in addition to expediting the installation of the new boiler after the approval of the Minister of Supply based on the Governor's address to him. This all comes as part of the plan to replace and renew old boilers.
The media center of the Ministry of Supply and Internal Trade responded to the investigator’s questions in an official letter. He confirmed the installation of a new boiler in Kom Ombo factories with a capacity of 120 tons of steam per hour compatible with the environment in the place of four old “Dia” boilers.
The center also highlighted that the granular wood factory affiliated with the Kom Ombo Sugar Factory installed filters to absorb dust. This is in addition to the rehabilitation of six “Dia” boilers in cooperation with the Environmental Affairs Agency to reduce emissions. Further, the cooling towers will be operated again to recycle the water and re-use it instead of dumping it into the sewage system.
Despite all this, emissions are still rising from the chimneys of the factory and over the skies of the city of Kom Ombo, while its people pay the price, and suffocate to death.