The fire roared and all our attempts to extinguish it failed. The factory door was locked from the outside, and the smoke began to suffocate us.
This is the last thing Ali Jamal, a 16 year old high-school student, remembers before he lost consciousness. Ali and eleven other workers faced death when they were engulfed by fire in an unlicensed plastic shoe factory in the Al-Wehda area in Shubra El-Khaimah, north of Cairo.
The fire dates back to September 2018, and occurred in a factory on Masjid al-Rahman Street, which contained large quantities of flammable materials. The fire extinguishers were empty, the water was cut off, and the main door was shut by the factory owner. According to the injured and the forensic report, produced by the Industrial Security Department of Shubra El-Khaimah, which was prepared at the request of the Public Prosecution during the investigation of this case 1072 of 2019, the factory owner locked the factory and went home without any regard for the lives of the workers inside.
Ali was severely burned, and four of his co-workers died in the fire, while five others were injured.
Hundreds of plastics factories and workshops that manufacture shoes operate without a license, and no official statistics are available to report their magnitude. These factories do not adhere to industrial safety requirements, and they emit suffocating and harmful gases. Over half a million citizens living in the Al-Wehda area in Shubra al-Khaimah are exposed to these toxins. The air quality in the area, as defined by environmental standards, is no longer considered safe.
In this investigation, we documented 22 cases where victims had been affected by the absence of safety precautions in these factories. Some suffered from chest diseases, while others developed physical deformities, and tragically some lost their lives. We also monitored the absence of occupational safety and security requirements. Finally, we sampled the air quality to reveal its effects on the health of the residents in the areas surrounding the factories and workshops.
Until the 1960s, the Yassin Canal used to irrigate agricultural lands in the Shubra Al-Khaimah area. With the passage of time and urban development, the crops disappeared and the canal was buried. Only its name remains after it was turned into Yassin Canal Street, which is now crowded with plastics factories.
In addition to this street, dozens of other streets in the Al-Wehda area are crowded with workshops and factories, of which only 94 have been registered in the Chemical Industries Division of the Federation of Industries, and only seven have an industrial registry.
Thuraya Al-Sheikh, a member of the Egyptian parliament from the Al-Wehda region, says that the number of plastics factories in the region steadily increased after 2010. Their number is estimated to be approximately 400, in addition to 600 others in the Shubra al-Khaimah area, employing more than 20,000 people.
Al-Wehda in Shubrā has designated factory clusters
All attempts by Mahmoud Abdel-Qader to persuade his 14-year-old son, Ihab, to leave his job in the plastics factory on Al-Rahman Mosque Street, failed. Abdel-Qader thought his son was too young to join this dangerous profession, but the teenager kept going to work, until the fire consumed him, along with three others, in the factory fire in 2018.
Ihab was a student in the third year of middle school. He waited for the summer vacation to leave his small home city of Al-Awamer in the governorate of Assiut. He headed towards Cairo to find work to help his retired father and to cover his high school expenses. His father said, "The last time he traveled, I tried to convince him not to go and gave him all the money he needed to study. He promised me that he would return after the school holidays to complete his studies."
The prosecution charged the owner of the factory with negligence for not taking the necessary precautions to provide health and safety measures to secure the work environment. Additionally, the owner was charged with failure to comply with the necessary requirements to prevent fire risks, failure to manage an industrial facility without a license, failure to abide by the appropriate labour laws, and finally failure to inform the Insurance authorities. Despite the issuance of a preliminary ruling to imprison the factory owner for three years, the Court of Appeal sentenced him for one year only.
The report on the factory fire and the prosecution's investigations revealed that the fire raged for three hours, because the fire extinguishers were empty and the only water source was cut off. The prosecution’s inspection also revealed that the factory, built on an area of 70 square meters, had two iron doors, one of which was sealed from the outside with a lock and a metal latch at the time of the outbreak of the fire, and the second door was also closed. The report also revealed that there were metal containers containing adhesives used in the production of shoes such as "Cola" (a toxic chemical substance that belongs to a category of volatile organic solvents), in addition to the "thinner" (an organic solvent to which red alcohol is added that is used for industrial purposes in dyeing and for fuel). It was found that these materials stored under the stairs of the factory caused an increase in the intensity of the fire, which engulfed the employees’ workshop.
Article 237 of the amended labor law of 2017 stipulates that an industrial facility must use fire protection methods while providing appropriate personal protection tools, without imposing any financial burden on workers. Nevertheless, several testimonies collected from the residents in the region confirm that hardly a month passes without the outbreak of multiple fires inside the plastics factories and workshops, some of which are easy to control but others result in severe damage to the workers and residents of the region. We tried to obtain statistics on the number of fires which occur inside these workshops annually, but the Civil Protection Department of the Ministry of Interior refused to give us any data.
Our tour of the Al-Wehda area shows that the typical factory or workshop is a facility built on an area of 70 to 100 meters square, some of which may reach the height of 12 floors. Machines, heavy equipment and workers are concentrated on the first, second and third floors, while the remaining areas are allocated for the storage of products and raw materials. Within these confined spaces, there are no outlets for good ventilation, or means to protect workers from damage that may result in accidents involving fires, and there are no fire exits.
Articles 42, 43, 44 and 45 of the executive regulations of Environment Law No. 4 of 1994 stipulate that the owner of a facility must take precautions not to leak or emit any pollutant materials into the air inside the workplace, except in accordance with the limits permissible in Annex No. 8. Additionally, the law stipulates that measures should be taken to control the temperature of the factory, limit the intensity of noise inside the workplace and reduce the duration of exposure to permissible limits.
Reports, by the Environmental Department, in the East Shubra El-Khaimah neighborhood, have documented that factories are not adhering to the appropriate health and safety measures. According to one of these records (No. 33888 - October 2018), some of the violations included: firstly, the failure to insure the factory against fire hazards and secondly, the presence of chemical risks due to the spread of pungent odors inside and outside the factory. This is a byproduct of the molding process, which is a process that takes place by heating the raw material that is pumped through tubes and poured into iron molds to take the final form of plastic sneakers.
The inspection conducted by the Environment Department also showed the presence of high "heat stress" inside the facility. Further, the facility failed to keep an environmental record to show the effect of its activity.
According to Abdul-Rahim Musa, the inspection official at the Ministry of Environment, there have been 600 reports written against the violating factories in Shubra al-Khaimah in the last three years, 300 of which implicating shoe factories.
Ahmed Al-Bagouri, head of the Central Administration for Environmental Inspection and Compliance, affiliated to the Ministry of Environment, points out that about 95% of these factories are not licensed. He says, “We cannot call them factories as they are small workshops that are created randomly. The procedures for dealing with them begins with the issuance of a report, followed by a referral to the prosecution office, and ends with their closure".
According to Ibrahim Al-Manasterly, the former head of the Industrial Control Authority, a body affiliated to the Ministry of Trade and Industry, the factories and workshops are not monitored by the authorities. He explained that inspections are limited to factories that are licensed and registered with the Industrial Development Authority, which does not monitor unlicensed factories unless citizens file complaints against them.
Nonetheless, the Environmental Inspection and Compliance Department carried out 20 inspection campaigns of unlicensed factories during 2019, during which it closed 40 facilities, according to an interview with the head of the Central Inspection Department, Ahmed Al-Bagour.
Alaa Ahmed is 24 years old and does not leave her house without a mask, after she developed chronic allergies seven years ago. Last March, she was hit by a severe chest infection, after which the doctor told her that her condition was getting worse day by day.
Factory fumes and gases surround Alaa’s house from all sides. She talks to us as she tries to block any gaps round the edges of doors and windows from which factory fumes seep in, but to no avail.
Alaa feels that her medicine is not working, and she can no longer afford their cost of 1,200 pounds per month. Moreover, her baby has been adversely affected by these drugs, which prompted her to reduce the doses, but this worsened her own health condition. She explains, "I have depression, I won't leave my room except out of necessity. My health has ruined my life".
In the narrow streets crowded with factories, pungent odors rise with emissions of pollutants capable of suffocating those nearby. Factories blow their exhausts through vents inside small iron windows in the walls on the ground floors, while chimneys, filters or carbon hoods are non-existent at higher levels.
Article 42 of the regulations of the Environment Law (1994) specifies that the chimney must be at least two and a half times the height of the surrounding buildings, including the factory building itself.
Mustafa Murad, head of the Central Administration for Air Quality at the Ministry of Environment, discusses the violations against Article 42. The establishment of factories in the areas of residential housing contravenes regulations as does the failure to build exhausts and the reliance on hoods that funnel emissions into the streets. The law dictates that the disposal of fumes and gases from industrial activities must be through chimneys of a specific height. This is determined according to the size of the exhaust, so that the height of the chimney must be 3 meters higher than the tallest building in the area.
Murad explains that the escalation of harmful hydrocarbon gases, resulting from plastic waste that is subject to formation and heating, causes chronic chest diseases, and is a recipe for disaster in such crowded areas. Further, the danger of these gases increases in the absence of strong winds or in built up areas, as is the case in the Al-Wehda district, according to Murad.
We conducted an experiment to measure the percentage of harmful gases in the air of the Al-Wehda region, in collaboration with IES Environmental Services Laboratory accredited by the Environmental Affairs Agency. With the help of Dr. Rajab Abdel Khaleq Abu Bakr, a consultant specializing in environmental measurements, we selected two foci in the middle of the houses surrounding the plastics factories. The first focus was located at the intersection of Al-Hajjan Street with Mustafa Al-Shazly Street, and it showed that the percentage of carbon monoxide reached 115 mg / meter, exceeding the maximum permissible limits according to the environmental law, which is 30 mg / meter.
The percentage of sulfur dioxide reached 395 micrograms / cubic meter, exceeding the permissible ratio of 300 micrograms / cubic meter, while nitrogen dioxide reached 360 micrograms / cubic meter, exceeding the permissible ratio of 300 micrograms. The percentage of solid particles, less than 2.5 micrometers, reached 160 micrograms / cubic meter, which exceeded the permissible limit by 200%, and for solid particles less than 10 micrometers, they exceeded the permissible percentage by 191%.
The second focus was on Jamal Abdel Nasser Street in the Al-Wehda region, and the results showed that the percentage of carbon monoxide reached 43 mg / meter. The percentage of sulfur dioxide reached 390 micrograms / cubic meter, as for nitrogen dioxide, it reached 350 micrograms / cubic meter, and solid particles less than 2.5 micrometers, reached 95 micrograms / cubic meter, exceeding the permissible rate by 19%, and solid particles less than10 micrometers exceeded the limit by 12%.
Permissible Limits: 30
Permissible Limits: 350
Permissible Limits: 300
Permissible Limits: 180
Permissible Limits: 80
Permissible Limits: 150
The National Network for Monitoring Air Pollutants Surrounding the Environmental Affairs Agency Guidelines for the World Health Organization (WHO) regarding air quality and its pollutants Executive Regulations for Law No. 4 of 1994 amended by Law No. 9 of 2009 in the matter of environmental protection
Maximum limits permitted are based on Environment Law No. 4 of 1994 and Law No. 9 of 2009, as well as the regulations of the Environment Law issued by Resolution No. 338 of 1995 and amended by Resolution No. 710 of 2012, and Resolution No. 964 of 2015.
The aforementioned laws require industrial establishments not to emit or leak pollutants into the air beyond the permissible limits to ensure a decent level of air quality. Further, the law specifies certain requirements for the use and burning of fuel in industrial establishments.
Salwa Kamal, an analyst and professor at the Air Pollution Research Department at the National Research Center, says that increasing the levels of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide beyond the permissible limits affects the respiratory system and infects people with eye and skin allergies. Additionally, suspended particles in the air are loaded with high concentrations of gases and very fine dust enters the lungs, then flows into the blood, infecting the body with diseases such as pulmonary ossification and crystalline membrane infections. When the dust mixes with silicon, it creates one of the most dangerous pollutants that cause pulmonary ossification diseases.
Taha Al-Sabbagh, a consultant for environmental monitoring and waste treatment, confirms that the increase in carbon monoxide above the permissible limits ( as specified in Law 9 of 2009) is due to the incomplete burning of carbon fuels, which is difficult to disintegrate. It leads to suffocation and rattles the body, and puts it into a dangerous state causing all bodily functions to deteriorate.
Al-Sabbagh adds that suspended particles can penetrate the lungs, causing chest diseases.The risk increases in the presence of synergistic gases, which occur due to the combination of different gases causing a so-called synergistic effect, where one pollutant enhances the toxicity of the other. This leads to cases of asthma, chest allergies and chronic pulmonary embolism.
Aziza Al-Sayed, the former head of the East Shubra Al-Khaimah district, explains that the shoe manufacturing industry used to be less harmful and employed simpler production methods in the past, which resulted in less emissions and harm to the environment. However, due to the increase in production, and of the number of factories, the region has been transformed into a largely illegal industrial zone which utilizes raw materials with unpleasant odors and harmful fumes.
In 2017, MP Thuraya Al-Sheikh submitted a briefing request to the Ministry of Environment regarding the damage caused by plastics factories in Shubra Al-Khaimah. The Ministry of Environment responded in February 2017 by claiming they had launched campaigns against the Al-Wehda region on December 30, 2015, during which four environmental reports were issued regarding violations of factories and small workshops. Furthermore, they recommended the closure of most of the workshops in order to avoid any inspections and violations.
However, closing these factories and workshops today is no longer possible after the issuance of the Law of Conducting Industrial Procedures in 2017.
Ramadan Shihab, 55 years old, says that he put up his house for sale to escape from the plastics factories that surround his house from all sides. He blames them for causing four of his family members to contract serious chest diseases.
Ramadan's niece Shaima Amer spoke about her daughter, Maryam, having a chest allergy: "all night long she wakes up, she says, Mama, I can't breathe." The doctor advised her to leave the area and escape the fumes of the plastics factories in Shubra until her daughter's condition improves.
Law No.15 of 2017 on the Facilitation of Industrial Procedures was issued in place of Law No. 453 of 1954 regarding industrial and commercial establishments and other places of concern that may be harmful to public health. The aim of the new law, as the government announced, was to save time and effort and facilitate procedures for investors.
Previously, an investor had to obtain the approval of 11 different entities to obtain the necessary authorizations, which can take up to two years. As for the new law, industrial activities are divided into two types: low-risk industrial activities, which take only seven days to obtain a license, and high-risk industrial activities, which take one month to obtain a license.
Abdel-Rahim Moussa, an inspection official, opposes the new law and finds its licensing system a gateway to legalizing the status of factories, which are not compliant with safety regulations and do not actually implement the requirements on the ground.
Moussa says that the new law has undermined the authority of environmental inspectors and stripped them of their power to immediately shut down any facility without a license (or cut off their electricity and water supply).The role of the environmental inspector has been limited to just preparing and writing up reports, which can be used in court to impose fines ranging from EGP 2,000 to EGP 20,0000. According to Moussa, the new law has placed the closure decision in the hands of the Industrial Development Authority of the Ministry of Trade and Industry, which as a rule generally opposes the closure of these factories.
Moussa points out that the Industrial Development Authority ignores the reports sent to it from the environmental departments and their warnings of the consequences of supporting noncompliant factories. This allowed factories to produce environmental documentation “on paper”, without them having any intention of implementing any real steps to achieve industrial and environmental security for local residents and employees.
In September we sent an official letter to the Industrial Development Authority and we received no response up until the date this investigation was completed and published.
Bakr Abdel Moneim, head of the East Shubra al-Khaimah neighborhood, claimed that regular inspections of these factories are carried out through periodic environmental campaigns, and that the necessary measures are taken to reconcile their conditions. He emphasized that there is a government tendency to move factories away from residential areas, either to the Badr area of Cairo Governorate or Al-Khanka in Qalyubia Governorate, to stop the resulting damage, and that the decision is now with the governor of Qalyubia. However, none of these proposals have been implemented.