Unsafe heating methods cause fatalities in northwestern Syria
The harsh winter and poor living conditions in northwestern Syria are driving displaced people to use dangerous and unsafe heating methods, leading to an increase in fires in the region.
These fires have caused several deaths and injuries, including children and women, in addition to material damage to homes and tents.
Carbon monoxide gas, one of the leading causes of suffocation cases in northwestern Syria, caused the latest incident on January 15, which resulted in three fatalities, including two children and a young man who were siblings, due to gas emissions from a heating stove. The incident, resulting from incomplete combustion of heating materials, occurred in the “Mutawa 1” camp affiliated with the city of Atmeh north of Idlib.
With the onset of each winter, areas in northwestern Syria witness a wave of fires inside homes or camps, due to the use of unsuitable heating materials and gas water heaters for bathing.
The Syria Civil Defence (White Helmets) told Enab Baladi that since the beginning of the current winter season (2023–2024), they have responded to more than 350 fires, resulting in the death of a woman and 28 civilian injuries, including burns and suffocation, among them five children and four women, as of January 17.
On January 14, a man and his wife suffered from suffocation due to a fire in their tent caused by a heater in a camp north of Idlib, and a 13-year-old girl experienced severe suffocation due to a domestic gas leak in the village of Balyoun south of Idlib, according to the Civil Defence.
The colorless, odorless killer
Carbon monoxide, an odorless, colorless, and toxic gas, is particularly insidious because it is impossible to see or smell the toxic fumes, allowing it to kill without humans realizing its presence in the home. The effects of carbon monoxide exposure can vary greatly from person to person based on age, general health, concentration levels, and exposure duration, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The EPA states that carbon monoxide can leak from chimneys, furnaces, and heating devices that burn gas and kerosene without adequate ventilation, backdrafts from furnaces, gas water heaters, heaters, tobacco smoke, gas ranges, and other sources.
Respiratory specialist Dr. Ahmed al-Hassan spoke to Enab Baladi about the potential risks after a person inhales the gas, where large amounts of carbon monoxide in the air can accumulate in the blood, replacing the oxygen in red blood cells with carbon monoxide.
Dr. al-Hassan mentioned that the risks of inhaling the gas could lead to death, with other possible outcomes including severe tissue damage and other harmful gasses produced by primitive heating methods during combustion, such as sulfur and nitrogen oxides, leading to asthma, eye health effects, and weakening the body’s resistance to infectious and viral diseases.
Risk levels vary with age, and people with chronic diseases such as asthma, allergies, and bronchitis suffer quicker breathing difficulties, while the lungs of older adults and children are less resistant than those of healthy adults, according to Dr. al-Hassan.
The specialist also explained that potential diseases from prolonged exposure to fires include emphysema, lung cancer, exacerbation of cardiovascular diseases, lung function impairment, and respiratory diseases such as asthma and chronic bronchitis.
The Syria Civil Defence explained to Enab Baladi that the community resorts to less expensive heating methods in winter due to poor living conditions and economic hardship, increasing the risk of fires due to the nature of the heating materials used, such as primitively treated fuel, plastics, coal, and other unsafe materials.
A heating materials shop owner in Kafr Takharim, northwest of Idlib, Fahd al-Tali, told Enab Baladi that the price of a bag of high-quality imported coal reaches seven dollars, while other types vary between four to six US dollars per bag, and kiln coal is sold at nine Turkish liras per kilogram, with a second quality at seven and a half liras.
According to al-Tali, there is no reliance on gas due to its high cost; the price of a gas cylinder is 13 US dollars. However, a device for heating water in bathrooms has been in use since 2016 in northwestern Syria, and there has been an increase in purchases for its speed in heating water and lower cost. A gas cylinder can last about a month in winter and two months or more in summer. The prices of the device range from 20 to 90 US dollars, depending on its quality.
Every US dollar is equivalent to 30 Turkish liras, according to the “Döviz” currency exchange website.
Both the Syrian Salvation Government (SSG) and the Syrian Interim Government (SIG), which operate in northern Syria, adopted the Turkish lira as a circulation currency in June 2020; being more stable than the Syrian pound, besides the use of the US dollar in external trade transactions.
Water heaters are sold at around 60 to 90 dollars at Mustafa Abdul Latif’s hardware store, and the prices of used devices of the locally known “Chauffe-eau gaz” range from 40 to 70 US dollars.
Abdul Latif, the hardware store owner, told Enab Baladi that the device’s capacity ranges from five to 12 liters, some of which operate on water pressure, requiring the water tank to be positioned high and away from the heater, contributing to their higher price.
Awareness tips and programs
According to pulmonologist Dr. Ahmad al-Hassan, one of the important steps when a fire occurs is to move the victim, as a first step, to a place filled with fresh air and to help them regulate their breathing by tilting their head back, closing their nose, and inhaling oxygen from the mouth. It is preferable to transfer them to a hospital for artificial oxygen administration.
The Syria Civil Defence team told Enab Baladi that the absence of safety procedures and awareness plays a significant role in most fires, as they have turned into a “daily nightmare” that adds to other dangers civilians face, such as shelling, diseases, floods, and various other risks.
The White Helmets carry out awareness campaigns in areas and camps in northwest Syria to disseminate information about security and safety procedures and preventive measures. This includes the correct ways to use heating materials of different kinds in winter, in addition to discussing the risks of unsafe materials.
According to what the Civil Defence told Enab Baladi, the awareness programs include how to prevent potential hazards and measures and actions to take in case of any emergency, whether it is a fire or cases of suffocation and an explanation of how to use manual fire fighting devices.
The Idlib Health Directorate posted on its official Facebook page, on January 16, the necessary guidelines to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning, such as ventilating heating means well, ensuring that combustion by-products do not leak into the house, ventilating rooms well when using a gas heater, turning off the heater and ensuring complete combustion of the materials inside before sleep, and ventilating the sleeping area well, in addition to not installing a gas-operated water heater inside the bathroom.
The regions in northwest Syria contain 4.5 million people, of which 4.1 million need assistance, 3.7 million of them suffer food insecurity, 2.9 million are internally displaced, and two million of them live in camps, according to statistics issued by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
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