Health Risks of Iran's Lake Urmia Desiccation Under Study

Cancer, high blood pressure and respiratory problems are the main outcomes of the lake drying up, which experts say will affect life in a 100-kilometer radius
A multitude of factors, including climate change and excessive damming, has led to considerable damage to the lake in the past two decades.
A multitude of factors, including climate change and excessive damming, has led to considerable damage to the lake in the past two decades.

The universities of medical sciences in Tabriz (East Azarbaijan) and Urmia (West Azarbaijan) have been tasked to conduct a comprehensive long-term study of the effects on health of the people residing in the lake’s region, following reports that respiratory and other illnesses have increased due to its desiccation.

The directive came from Isa Kalantari, who heads the Urmia Lake Restoration Program (ULRP) and is advisor to first Vice President Es’haq Jahangiri on environmental issues.

Set up in 2013 shortly after President Hassan Rouhani took office, the ULRP is mandated to stabilize the lake’s water level (Phase 1) before embarking on the more challenging task of restoring its water level to what it was more than a decade ago (Phase 2).

“Tests on 88 people in regions adjacent to the lake revealed that many  were living with respiratory diseases,” said Massoud Tajrishi, director of the program’s Planning and Integration Office.

The medical universities are obliged to conduct a study over five consecutive years on 2,500 people and assess the effects of the drying of Lake Urmia on their health.

The debate over the potential health hazards of Lake Urmia has become a regular feature of the local media during the past couple of years, with those involved in the restoration program pointing to cancer, high blood pressure and respiratory problems as the main negative health effects of the lake drying up, which according to experts can affect life in a 100-kilometer radius.

Residents of surrounding villages and even as far as Tabriz have been breathing salt-laden air, leading to a rise in blood pressure among the people in general. The increased volume of particles in the air is posing a grave danger to public health, ISNA reported.

“Based on satellite images of the lake, its decreasing surface area has caused expansion of salt planes with high albedo (the proportion of the incident light or radiation that is reflected by a surface) affecting the thermal balance of the atmosphere above the lake,” Tajrishi said.

Freshly exposed salt planes become new point-sources of toxic salt aerosols into the atmosphere, and can cause serious agricultural and health complications across the region, he added.

  Not Doing Enough

Mehdi Ahmadi, an official at the restoration program had earlier castigated the Health Ministry for “not doing enough” to assess the health effects of the lake’s desiccation and not taking appropriate measures to ensure minimal damage, ILNA reported. He warned that dry salt particles are easily scattered by winds, which end up affecting air quality.

In June 2015, the head of the program’s social committee Armin Noorbakhsh had indicated that there have not been any conclusive studies on the effects of the drying of the lake on the health of the people.

“But there is no doubt that the increase in eye problems and blood pressure is related to the rapid disappearance of Lake Urmia,” he was quoted as saying by ISNA.

He also reported a 30% increase in the incidence of skin cancer among people and wildlife in the region.

Tajrishi underlined that the effects of the process of the lake drying will not be manifested on health right away.

“Cancer cells begin to grow in the body after a certain age, and if people are exposed to specific rays that impact the growth rate of those cells, the rate of cancer will increase in later years,” he warned.

He also referred to the drying of the Salton Sea, a shallow, saline, endorheic rift lake located directly on the San Andreas Fault, predominantly in California’s Imperial and Coachella Valleys, as well as the Aral Sea, which was an endorheic lake lying between Kazakhstan in the north and Uzbekistan in the south.

“The disappearance of Salton Sea caused $20 billion harm to health in the region, and Aral barely contained 1 gram per liter salt.  Urmia Lake has 350 grams per liter.”

A multitude of factors, namely climate change, mismanagement of resources, excessive damming and construction of a massive causeway to shorten the travel time between Urmia and Tabriz, has led to considerable damage to the lake in the past two decades.

The ULRP’s budget for the current fiscal year is 6.75 trillion rials ($169 million), but the revival of Iran’s largest inland body of water has slowed in recent months due to intermittent cash injections, which has led to the suspension of several projects.

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