The Beirut explosion: The effects beyond the chaos

How a Russian-owned boat brought Beirut to its knees.

Writer: Altay Shaw 
Editor: Audrey Brabant
Artist: Lucie Gourmet


A few months ago, an endocrinology resident in Detroit was given the news she had been waiting for. Her partner’s immigration application for the US had been approved and the wedding they had put off for three years was finally going ahead. Standard radiantly before the cameras and their families, the two were immensely happy. That was until the unthinkable happened. 

A few kilometers away, 2750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored in a warehouse near to the main port of the city exploded. The gigantic orange fireball hurtled into the sky, followed shortly by a rippling shockwave. Windows were smashed, cars destroyed and buildings brought to ruins. Firecrew who were working to put out the blaze that had started down at the docks were killed instantly. 

Seconds later, Dr Israa Seblani was running for cover, having been thrown to the ground. Opening her eyes, cries of agony were filling the air as she stood in a daze. Thankfully, she was alright. Her wedding dress had saved her from hundreds of glass shards, which fell to her bedroom floor like moulting feathers when she got home that night.  

Sheltering in a doorway protected Dr Selbani from falling debris and allowed her to avoid any serious injuries. However, others were not so lucky. Official reports state at least 220 people were killed and a staggering 300,000 were made homeless. 

The explosion has left most of the world in shock. How could a substance used to fertilise plants also be dangerous enough to generate an explosion equivalent to 15,000 tonnes of TNT

The explosion and its buildup

On 4th August, a massive explosion occurred in the main port of Beirut, Lebanon. The blast was so powerful that it was felt in Cyprus, over 200 km across the Mediterrean Sea. How could an explosion in a warehouse be so deadly? The answer comes from the contents of the warehouse at the time. 

In 2013, a Russian-owned ship called the MV Rhosus moored in Beirut due to financial difficulties the owner was facing, and was left stranded in the port for years. The MV Rhosus was originally destined for Mozambique but would never make it. The Ukranian and Russian crew weren’t given the right to disembark due to the hazardous contents of the ship. There had been several red flags along the way, including the ship having 14 separate deficiencies when it was inspected in the Port of Seville, including a corroded deck and poor fire safety. Adding insult to injury, both crews of staff had not been paid as the owner of the ship was unable to keep up with the spiralling costs. 

At the time, the ship was known to be carrying 2750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate. Ammonium nitrate consists of two ions, ammonium, NH4+ and nitrate, NO3. Under standard conditions, the ions are attracted to one another by ionic bonds and remain relatively harmless. However, when stored it can absorb moisture and clump into large rocks, which when exposed to intense heat ‒ either through fire or continued high temperatures ‒ can lead to explosions. This includes the formation of the toxic red plume, which was seen to rise before the mushroom cloud, a telltale sign that the gas produced was NO2

The explosion was in many ways unexpected. But, the port authorities in Beirut were aware of the dangerous cargo aboard the ship. In 2014, the Lebanese courts ordered the contents of Warehouse 12 to be disposed of due to its highly volatile nature (with news headlines on the 23rd July 2014 stating that the crew were being kept as hostages on a floating bomb due to the dangerous cargo it carried). 

Typically, when ammonium nitrate is used as a fertiliser, it is mixed with other fertilisers, often phosphorus-based, that suit the soil type and conditions of the agricultural land. Early reports suggested that the cargo load was going to be used for agriculture. However, the bags containing the ammonium nitrate were pictured with the name Nitroprill HD, believed to be a knock-off of a blasting agent used primarily in coal mines. Nitropril is used in open mines, another reason why the Lebanese government would have been reluctant at best to take the contents of the Rhosus ashore. 

In terms of the explosion itself, it was not the largest blast with an origin linked to ammonium nitrate in history, but it is the largest since explosions in France and the US 73 years ago. 

An explosive history of ammonium nitrate accidents (Nature)

The psychology of the blast: The longer-lasting shadow

Dr Selbani’s quick thinking allowed her to get to safety. Family and friends at her wedding reception were fortunately saved from any harm too. However, many people lost loved ones or saw them injured as the city struggled to deal with the explosion and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. You would have thought that this would be enough of a living crisis to deal with. 

But, for the vast majority of individuals in Lebanon, this situation was just the tip of the iceberg. 

In fact, owing to a number of factors prior to the blast and the failings in its handling of the disaster, the Lebanese Government resigned, taking a “step back… to stand with the people, in order to wage the battle of change with them”. 

A long-standing objective of Lebanese government policy was to keep the Lebanese Pound in line with the US Dollar, ensuring the economy could stay afloat for the most part. This created a surreal experience in which hotels, bars and nightclubs were open, despite tap water being non-consumable and the national grid failing to support demand at all times. 

By February of this year, the effects on the economy were clear. In an attempt to limit the losses to the economy, banks have been limiting individuals to withdrawals of $100 a week. As a consequence, importers have been unable to pay suppliers. This led to shortages, including a reduction of around 30% in food stuffs.  

In terms of employment, 220,000 jobs in the private sector have been lost since October 2019, with a total active workforce of just over 1.5 million. Added risks due to COVID-19 and further economic turmoil points towards this number being even lower by the end of the year. 

With the current economic situation at hand, it is not hard to believe that the people of Lebanon are struggling. And due to the blast, the situation is only going to get worse. 

Aid agencies on the ground in Beirut have reported that anxiety, sleeplessness and night terrors are likely to become more commonplace. Teenagers and younger children are at most risk according to Save the Children. This is based on research following a large fireworks explosion that occurred in a warehouse in Denmark in 2004. This demonstrated that younger children were more easily startled, in part due to the loud noises but also due to their lack of emotional development. 

Sadly, people in Lebanon are accustomed to war and the horrors it brings. For many, the 2006 Lebanon War was the last major conflict in the area. Israeli air forces bombarded Lebanese towns and villages, in response to Hezbollah militia action (to this day, Israel never formally declared war on Lebanon. Rather it retaliated against Hezbollah, who, back in 2006, had the backing of the Lebanese Government).  

But children are not the only ones who will be affected. The citizens of Beirut will have to come to terms with lost homes, livelihoods and loved ones. Grief, PTSD and anger at a government who is no longer in power will prevail for years to come. Thus, it is imperative, more than ever, that the people of Lebanon get the support they desperately deserve.  

Lebanon as a nation is not the most welcoming towards those with mental health concerns. This is most pronounced in areas of high deprivation, where acceptance of the idea that people need psychological help is low. In addition, studies have found that women overwhelmingly have a better understanding of mental health conditions than their male counterparts. Several research groups have suggested that targeted mass media campaigns as well as increased access to services are needed to meet the targets set out by the World Health Organisation’s QualityRights programme.  

In a country severely lacking appropriate mental health support, the younger generations will have a difficult time adapting to the fractured political terrain in the country.  

Moving forward 

The explosion was just the icing on a very bitter cake for the people of Beirut. The repercussions of the disaster are only likely to amplify, as selecting a new government, recovering from an economic recession and tackling the COVID-19 pandemic will all take time. 

Lebanon is in a multitude of crises that the world was unaware of until a particularly warm day in July. In addition to the aftermath of the explosion, Beirut has suffered the third major blaze in the city in the space of the week. The Beirut Souks building was yet another pinch of salt in the wounds of those caught out in the blast. Only through long-term, structured reforms will the economic, environmental and political plight of the Lebanese get any better.

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